Category Archives: Art & Life

Discovering the Elusive Obvious

The quality of your life is the quality of your movement.” Moshe Feldenkrais moshe

I awoke the other morning to the above quotation, and it felt like one of my most respected teachers had come to give me a message of encouragement. Now deep in the daily discomfort and pain of rehabbing my shoulder, I’m longing for a return to the broad range of easeful movement I’ve experienced most of my life. I met Moshe in Dallas in the spring of 1981 when I drove from Fort Worth where I lived, to take part in a daylong workshop he was presenting. I’d heard of him through the Alexander Technique, http://alexandertechnique.com/ another system of somatic education I was involved with, and I knew this was a rare opportunity. Looking at his bio, my meeting with him came just before he stopped teaching in the fall of 1981. He died at age 80 in 1984. In spite of the short time I spent with him, the experience changed my life. http://www.feldenkrais.com/whatis

Moshé Feldenkrais was an Israeli physicist with a black belt in Judo who hurt his knee in a soccor match as a young man. He became an engineer and eventually founded a method of somatic education that uses gentle movements and directed attention to improve movement and enhance human functioning. One of the books he wrote around that time was titled, ”The Elusive Obvious.” wikipedia.org

Something happened just prior to my driving the thirty miles to Feldenkrais’s workshop that set the experience up as a life changing one for me. The night before I had gotten a call from one of my students who told me that the job I had held for two years as a social work professor at TCU, the one that had been listed nationally simply to fulfill the university’s affirmative action requirements, the same job that had been promised to me when I moved my family from Nebraska to Texas two years earlier, had been offered to a white male without a PhD. That morning I had decided to put this entire trauma drama out of my mind and attend the workshop as planned. But as I was driving I noticed my body going into a familiar response to extreme stress, so I pulled over to the side of the road and stopped my car.

Sitting in the drivers’ seat I began doing body awareness exercises to interrupt a movement pattern I had recognized in other situations of extreme stress. Ten years earlier two teenage boys had jumped me after I came out of my neighborhood bank and was attempting to get into my car in the parking lot. As I was sitting at the steering wheel and before I could get the door closed, one boy grabbed me to pull me out of the car. With the boy still attached to me, I slid across the front seat to the passenger side, unlocked the door and exited the car, all the while screaming at the top of my lungs. Shortly after I got home, the police called to say they had caught the boys. An off duty police officer happened to be at the bank observing the scene. He gave chase and captured them. The aftermath for me was the worst headache I’d every experienced and a toothache that resulted in my losing one of my front teeth.

It was that familiar sensation of tension above my front teeth that caused me to stop the car. “I may lose my job, but I’m not going to lose any more teeth,” I pledged to myself. I went into a meditative state to release the tension in my mouth and continued doing this even after I resumed driving. I arrived at the workshop just as it was beginning.

awarenessthroughmovementI joined the roomful of people lying on the hotel ballroom floor doing the slow relaxing and releasing exercises directed by the master. I noted the pleasure of moving without tension, of having my awareness completely in the moment. Whenever my mind wandered away from the awareness of my movements, the trauma drama of losing my job triggered painful tension in my gut and my upper jaw. I got the image of myself as an animal opening its mouth to bare its teeth to an aggressor.

It was at Moshe’s workshop that I noted not only how my body reacts to painful events in the external world, but also how to pattern interrupt these reactions, preventing them from continuing to harm me long after the event has ended. I discovered that choice point of the “Elusive Obvious” where, though it takes practice – when life gets tough, I can choose the pleasure of staying present to my body, and continuing aware of ways to move with ease and grace.

 

The Consolation Vacation

When a fall in my dance class a month ago caused us to cancel our European vacation, my husband worked to came up with an alternative. The doctor made sense when he said, “postpone the trip till you can really enjoy it,” but we then both had a block of free time in our calendars. And we both felt in need of a vacation. I started physical therapy twice a week with a set of homework exercises to do twice a day so the alternative needed to be not too far away and in a place where I could continue my rehabilitation regime.

IMG_1435Meanwhile, I had promised my sister, who lives in the Detroit area, that I would accompany her to the Geriatric Center in Ann Arbor where she was to receive results of testing that had been going on for over a year. Before my fall, the center had rescheduled her appointment to a date when I was to be in Amsterdam. After we knew I’d been in the country, I suggested she keep that appointment and I’d figure out how to get myself there.

On his walk one early morning, my husband came up with a plan – we could drive to Cleveland, only 2 hours away, and visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which turned out to be a “don’t miss it destination.” http://www.cleveland.com/rockhall/#/0  We’d stay overnight somewhere near my sister’s house and pick her up the next morning to take her with us for a short vacation. On the way back we’d go through Ann Arbor in time for her appointment.

I found a town, Saugatuck, known as the Art Coast of Michigan http://www.saugatuck.com/index.asp only a three-hour drive from my sister’s  house. There would be no sailing, deep-sea fishing, kayaking, or dune buggy rides for me.  I’d need to be satisfied with a view of the water from the broad roof deck of our well-appointed condo. I was able to visit the quaint shops and art galleries of the village, survey the history and art museums, and take a ride on the country’s last chain ferry. An evening cruise on the Star of Saugatuck paddleboat was especially lovely, as were the few hours we spent on Oval Beach, one of the best beaches in America, according to systems that rate such things. But a special highlight, which seemed a meaningful chance encounter, was our visit to nearby Holland Michigan.IMG_1412

Monday’s weather forecast had been for rain so we decided to drive north a bit to a larger city where there might be more to do indoors. Arriving in a rain torrent, we drove to the Windmill Island Gardens and learned they had the only authentic windmill outside of the Netherlands. We stayed dry by finding lunch in a Dutch café and realized that on that very day we had been scheduled to disembark our river cruise in Amsterdam. To celebrate that realization, when the sky cleared we went back to the gardens to climb the windmill – no passport needed. http://www.holland.org/listings/Windmill-Island-Gardens/74/  

As to my sister’s health, things are still not as we would want them to be but she got some good news and hope from a talented doctor who is determined to get to the bottom of her mysterious symptoms. 

Undoing the Damage

IMG_1356-1 It’s been a month since the fall that changed my life and I’m now beginning the restoration phase of the project. Last Thursday I had an evaluation at the physical therapy clinic in my neighborhood where I was given a few passive exercises to begin undoing the muscle tension that prevents me from having use of my left hand and arm. As I now understand it, when my bone broke, it enlisted enormous help from the muscles in my arm to lock it in place so the broken pieces could reconnect and fuse. And for the past month my part has been to hold the arm in a fixed position through the use of a sling, which I wore every day, even at night while sleeping.

I’m loving being able to let go of the sling for all but the times I’m in a crowded public space and need to signal other people to avoid bumping into my left side. I’ve also worn the sling when I’m teaching InterPlay to remind myself not to try to use muscles that have lost most of their strength. Strengthening will happen in the third phase – after the bones are securely mended.

As I’ve begun the exercises to reclaim some flexibility, the emotional challenge has been significant. I’m brought to the edge of tears, not just from physical pain, but from the feelings of shaky vulnerability that become ignited, like a bird with a broken wing continuingly attempting, but not quite able, to achieve flight.

Not surprisingly, since memories are stored in our bodies, working with the inner muscles close to the bone activated a memory of an incident that happened during a bodywork session I did 30 years ago. The practitioner working with me as I lay on the massage table held my left shoulder in her hands. Sending my breath into that place, and with her help, I was able to release tension from deep inside my shoulder, which coincidentally was the same shoulder that I’ve now broken. The immediate aftermath was a sensation of deep chill and my whole body began shivering. When I asked her what this might be about she said simply, “It’s fear.”  

A few minutes later when I went outside into the streets of New York City, I experienced that shoulder as porous, and the wind as moving through open spaces I had created within it. I never was quite sure what that was all about but I never missed whatever I’d let go of and I’m hoping I won’t miss the tension I’m working on letting go of now.  

Falling: Aftermath

magnetIt’s day 24 since my fall in a Sunday morning dance class ended my life-as-usual routines. Instead of taking a Zumba class this morning I will sit on a chair in the hallway outside the bathroom door, set the timer on my cell phone and use a pulley apparatus to slowly and carefully, exercise my arm and shoulder. When the good arm lowers the wounded one rises. I concentrate on listening deeply to how my body is handling this simple yet dramatic challenge. The goal is to introduce flexibility while not disrupting the proper placement and alignment needed for the bones to heal on their own.

Since my fall I’ve heard many stories of other people falling, including one of my long time friends Jyoti, who has lived in a memory center for close to 10 years. According to her husband someone left a suitcase in the middle of her room while she was sleeping, and when she woke and began moving about she tripped over it. No broken bones but lots of bruises that needed a couple of days in a hospital.

Last week my neighbor Claire saw me walking with my arm in a sling and she offered to check with me the next time she goes to the grocery store to see if I might need anything. A couple of days later she called. “I’m sorry I won’t be able to follow up on my offer to bring you groceries,” she began. “I’m in a rehab center after taking a fall myself during one of my power walks in our neighborhood.” The culprit was an uneven sidewalk, the outcome two broken bones in her left wrist, bruised ribs, and a sore left side

“Falling is part of life” according to the refrigerator magnet my friend Lynn brought me. She had her own encounter last summer with falling and breaking her heal when she walked out of a restaurant in Lawrenceville and turned her ankle in a hole in the sidewalk. After surgery and relying on a boot and crutches and the generosity of friends to get to work and back for 6 or so months, plus lots of physical therapy, she’s now an inspiring example that healing does happen.  IMG_1162

The second half of the magnet’s message, “Getting Back Up is Living,” challenges me to not focus on what I’ve had to cancel, (European vacation, grandparent trip with my granddaughter), or things I can not do (driving my car, taking dance classes, and ballroom dancing with my husband), but on the lessons being provided. I’ve become aware of how attached I am to my competencies. The 4 year old inside me who was ecstatic about being able to tie her own shoes, is still discouraged at herself when she cannot do that or other more important tasks. Looks like she and I are getting the opportunity to relearn many basic skills. I hope we’ll be like we were the first time around, proud and eager to let everyone know of our accomplishments so they can celebrate each small but important victory with us.     

After The Fall

It’s day 16 since my fall, the pattern interrupter that broke my shoulder (or more exactly, the humerous where it inserts into the shoulder) and changed every activity of my daily life. injured.dancerLuckily I’ve learned quickly how to sleep on my back in a stable, relatively comfortable position. Not so quickly, I’ve mastered a one-handed version of dressing myself. A friend came over and helped me figure out what items in my wardrobe could work. Tops with wide-neck openings are the only ones that can go over my wounded left arm. The top buttons on some pants make them impractical for fastening and unfastening during visits to the rest room. And forget a bra and contact lenses. Those items can only be included when someone is available to lend me another hand.

It does astonish what one cannot do having the use of only a single hand. I found clapping for my granddaughter as she walked across the stage at her high school graduation impossible, also tying my own shoelaces. Sandals work well but when it turns cold I enlist visitors to my house to help me don my silver sneakers. I’ve had to invent an entirely new method for wringing water out of my face cloth. The childproof tops on our medicine bottles had to be changed out so I could take my medicine on my own. And as I discovered yesterday, locking and unlocking our front door is something I cannot do without assistance. It’s a two-handed operation – you must pull with one hand while turning the key in the lock with the other.

I’m getting quite a bit of exercise just moving about the house. In order to preserve my balance and avoid another fall I must make multiple trips to move items from place to place as I can carry only one item at a time in my one good hand. To recover something I’ve dropped, which happens much more often now, I execute an elaborate slow genuflection of my knees to the ground in order to avoid bending over and disturbing the placement of my ailing shoulder. And that is the overarching goal. To preserve the proper alignment of what the doctor calls, “the bag of bones” that comprise my shoulder and upper arm, so they may heal on their own without the need of the surgeon’s metal plates and pins. So far, so good.impairedtraveler

Now I listen carefully to the universe to extract the message and meaning of this experience for my future life. I know already it will be a long time before I take for granted the simple acts necessary for self -care in my everyday life.

U S Air Travel circa 2015

We’re in line at the Tucson airport waiting for the gate agent to rebook us for a second time. Earlier in the day a broken fuel pump had sent us back to the gate and now, six hours later, storms around Dallas have grounded the new plane sent to rescue us. During the first hour in line I was forced to overhear one side of the cell phone conversation between a 30’s something man in a grey work out tee shirt apparently mentoring a less experienced friend. His subject – the relationship between performance reviews and annual salary increases. In between his descriptions of his own experience, he consistently repeated the phrase, “you see what I mean?” As his conversation progressed my irritation mounted at each “you see what I mean?” and I became fully occupied inhibiting my strong impulse to turn around and reassure him that I understood what he means.

Airport

This second time in line we’re behind two men, Presbyterian ministers, discussing mutual friends and the political issues of their chosen careers. Overhearing their conversation I learn they both live in Tucson and are trying to get to a two-day conference in Atlanta. In the best-case rerouting scenario they will already have missed the first day. “If God doesn’t want us to go, we’ll listen to that,” one man reassures the other, “and go home to our wives.” A woman in front of them who I had earlier overheard tell the woman next to her she was returning from a health coaching conference, chimes in, “I too am a minister and I like to say, “God has a plan and it isn’t always our plan.” At this point under the increasing weight of my stylish back pack, I’m holding on to a faint sense of gratitude that we are not air born and having to experience first hand the reported wind shears and tornado force winds taking place between here and our destination. By 9:30 pm, after retrieving our two suitcases and my husband’s golf clubs from baggage claim, we make it to the hotel to stand in their check-in line. We learn we’ll have to use our airline breakfast vouchers at the airport since the hotel’s food service won’t begin early enough for us to make our 7 am flight.

Somewhat refreshed after five hours of sleep in a real bed and a hot shower we make it back to the airport to learn that the kitchen that services all the airport restaurants is out of eggs. As I’m attempting to deal with my disappointment two slender women, perhaps refugees from the health coaching conference, distract me. One takes out a small plastic container from her purse filled with a small amount of what looks like peanut butter. She begins spreading it on a slender slice of dark bread. The other woman asks a restaurant staff person for something I can’t decipher but I laugh with the women as he presents a package of Reese’s peanut butter cups, “It’s on me if this will do,” he says with a broad smile and I wonder whether he gets the joke. Now my gratitude switches to the fact that I have brought some of my own provisions, sharing the health coach’s lack of confidence in any airport’s food offerings. As I crunch into the crisp slices of sweet red pepper, sugar snap peas, and spinach leaves I brought from Pittsburgh, I’m especially grateful that they travel better than we do.

What’s Involved In A Writing Life?

Writers write, or so they say. And though I write most every day, it hasn’t been the type of writing I believe that wisdom refers to. In the last two weeks I’ve written a writer’s statement for an article being published in an anthology in May, and three proposals for speeches I hope to give. Inspired by a woman who writes regularly for a business magazine I’ve filled several pages with practice headline titles for future workshops and articles. She said she spends half her writing time on the headlines because if they’re not engaging and provocative, what you write in the article doesn’t matter. No one will open or read it.

I’m still kept busy tending to the needs of the book Warrior Mother that I’ve already written: writing thank you notes to the people who helped me with last week’s Seattle workshops and book performance, sending emails to workshop participants so they’ll fill out the survey monkey evaluation forms, and organizing my notes from an online course I’m taking on book promotion. A couple of days ago I posted information on Facebook about a radio show I’ll be engaged in.

WritingLife_bookLooking over my list of recent duty filled writing inspired me to re-visit Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I was hoping for some inspiration, remembering what can happen when we writers respond less to external demands and more to what is trying to emerge from inside. Visiting her website, which I was surprised to learn she manages herself, http://www.anniedillard.com/ I find the following, “I’m sorry. I’ve never promoted myself or my books…Here is some information for scholars. (I’ve posted this web-page in defense; a crook bought the name and printed dirty pictures, then offered to sell it to me. I bit. In the course of that I learned the web is full of misinformation. This is a corrective.)”

What I learned from Annie Dillard, a most prolific and accomplished writer who was born in Pittsburgh – The life of a writer, whether experienced or neophyte is nowhere close to our romantic notions of that profession. It takes a great deal of determination to pursue it.

Writer_01

A Dance At Easter

Anticipation for Easter this year was enhanced by an invitation from Gail Ransom, a minister friend, to dance at her church’s Easter Service. Dancing as part of a worship service goes to the roots of dance itself, and sparks reminders of my past dancing career. Over 40 years ago, for a period of six years, I was a member of Festival Dancers, a dance company sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Detroit and directed by Harriet Berg, who is still holding forth as Ms Detroit Dance. We performed frequently during that period in churches and synagogues around Michigan.

IMG_1216The ministerial team at First United Methodist Church came up with inspiring music and ideas for my colleagues and I to play with as we developed our contributions for the Easter service.  Rather than choreographing a dance piece from movement phrases I knew or thought up, I decided to use InterPlay’s improvisational forms, and arrange them in a sequence and in formations that fit the music and this particular church space. This was a natural choice because InterPlay founders Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter created InterPlay over 30 years ago on the altars of churches in California as a way of creating dance sequences for worship services.

A week before Easter I met with three young girls, members of the church, and taught them the primary forms we’d be using – shape and stillness, side-by-side solos, and gesture choir. When the members of Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players joined me on Tuesday we worked out spacing and added a variation I’d call shape/travel/shape for each dancer to repeat until arriving at her assigned spot in the sanctuary. Inside these forms each of us created our own movement, connecting to the music and to one another.IMG_0332_2

The piece we were given to dance to was “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon. It had won the 1984 Oscar for best song in the movie “Working Girl.” The river referred to and celebrated in the song is a river of women, hundreds of thousands of women, taking their places as productive and fully contributing members of societies across the globe.

I was delighted and surprised by the synchronicity between one of my deepest lifetime longings and an opportunity to dance it.  Having the eager and dedicated young women join us added another layer of meaning to the piece since they are the future. As the choir lauded the coming of the “New Jerusalem,” we dancers of various ages leapt for joy, and my entire being tingled with what I could only describe as ecstasy.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Like most Americans, my ancestry is a bit of the mutt variety. Dad’s people came to this country from Protestant England and Northern Ireland and were established on farms in southern Illinois well before this country’s Civil War. Mother’s family were redheaded Catholics from Scotland on her father’s side, most likely from northeast of Edinburgh. Her grandparents on her mother’s side were born in Ireland in the midst of the potato famine, and shortly after they married, they boarded a ship to America, settling in Springfield Ohio just after the Civil War.

Irish-Blessing-St-Patricks-Day-Free-Printable-by-Five-Heart-Home_700px_Print-1When my children look back on their ancestry they must include the great- grandparents on their father’s side who left Scotland after their highlander Great Grandmother, who lived in the Lightbody Castle, married their Great Grandfather, a lowlander, and the gatekeepers’ son. Upward mobility for their offspring meant moving to a country with a less rigid class system. On their other Great-Grandfather’s side, there is the mystery of where he came from before he boarded a ship in Liverpool England to seek his fortune in America in the early twentieth century. And to complete their pedigree, they must include the woman he married who was from the Netherlands.

By the time my grandchildren get the St. Patrick’s Day card I send to them each year, I’m sure they are shaking their heads wondering what St. Patrick’s Day has to do with them. They are surrounded by relatives on their father’s side, all descendents from the same ethnic group, Germans from Russia. These people immigrated to Russia from Germany at the invitation of Catherine the Great to bring their farming skills to Russia. They agreed to come as long as they could keep their own language and religion, and be free from the duty of military service. After 130 years, the Russian government cancelled the agreement and my grandchildren’s ancestors were among the million or so Germans from Russia who settled in the Americas after the Russian Revolution. The center for Germans from Russia is in Lincoln Nebraska where my grandchildren live.

Getting back to my insistence on sending St. Patrick’s Day cards to my relatives, I’ve always wondered why my mother’s Irish heritage seemed to stand out from the array of other ethnic influences in my background. Leprechauns_SingingPerhaps it was the fact that her Irish Grandmother raised my mother and that influence never left her. Perhaps my close relationship with my auntie, my great-grandmother’s daughter, grafted me to that branch of the family tree. Or maybe it’s something to do with the spirit of the Irish in general. Wherever they are, in whatever community they live, on St. Patrick’s Day, they lift their glasses and invite everyone to join them in being Irish, just for that day.

Memory 2.0

My husband and I shiver as we stand with our friend Randall at the front door of the Memory Care Center waiting for someone to let us in. “How long has Jyoti been in this facility?” Rich asks. Randall briefly details the 10-year history of his advocacy for his wife in a string of facilities of this type and, blowing my breath on my gloveless hands,  I wonder if it might be time to move her again. “This company pays its staff a bit more so their turnover is lower,” Randall says. Through the glass door I catch a glimpse of a cleaning cart and knock more vigorously on the door. A maid responds and lets us in.

We walk into the main living room and find Jyoti, one of our best friends of 30 years, asleep in a recliner in front of a dark television screen, the same spot I left her on my last visit nine months ago. She’s dressed in comfortable, warm looking grey slipper boots as Randall approaches her chair from behind and gently calls her name. Coming around to the front of her seat, he offers his hands to pull her from the chair and lead her to a more private area for our visit. My husband Rich and Randall walk on either side of her, each holding a hand, and I walk behind. When we arrive in the new space she and I look at each other and I imagine I see a spark of recognition on her face.

IMG_1162The men and I slow way down in order to be in communion with her rhythm. She and I sit close together on a love seat and she lets me put my arm around her. As we hug she murmurs and mumbles a sound that sounds like “Mama.” Randall sits in a chair across from her and teases her about looking so intently at him. Rich sits in a chair on her other side while she creates sounds a young child might make, occasionally saying expressions like, “Oh, my,” with an inflection of surprise or delight. She breaks out in a song, and I respond by singing a few lines of “Amazing Grace.” I tell her that’s what her song reminded me of. She says some syllables in a rhythmic manner like reciting a poem and we remind each other and her of what a good poet she was. Randall invites Jyoti to dance with him and she seems delighted to do that. She’s a bit more reserved when Rich and I join the two of them in a circle dance, but though shaky on her feet she allows it. 

We take pictures of us together and Randall leaves the room and bringing back a framed picture of several women and us in our spirituality group from her room. I comment, “We’re all dressed up and at a wedding but I can’t remember whose wedding it was.“ As we study the picture together I say, “I look pregnant in that picture, but that couldn’t have been the case. I was way too old by that time.” Jyoti begins making a cooing sound and pointing to my stomach. As we sit together in the silence she rubs my tummy while making cooing sounds and I get the message that she’s teasing me about there being a child inside.

Returning home to Pittsburgh I’m disoriented, having trouble picking up the threads of my usual life, as though I’ve traveled to another place beyond space and time, another place we are all headed toward, one way or another.