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The Anatomy of Ecstasy

When my then five-year old nephew, Adam, who was an only child discovered that he had four cousins he said, “I feel so big. I’m bigger than a Giant!”

giantimage  Preparing to return from Atlanta after spending time with a group of amazing women and meeting many others in the larger community, I felt so full of excitement that I told a friend, “I feel like I could fly home without the airplane, though I do know that wouldn’t be a good idea.” 

 My friend and teacher, Cynthia Winton-Henry knows about this. She calls it “Flaps up, Flaps down.”  To demonstrate how to navigate between our Big self and our pedestrian, Little self, she directs her students to raise their arms high and out to the side as though they were a bird or a plane. This is “flaps up.” Then she instructs her students to put their arms down by their sides, “flaps down,” in order to return to their smaller individual selves.

womanspreadingwings Some activities require us to be in our Larger self. When I spoke with a numerologist friend of mine about what I needed to do to promote my book she said, “Last year was your completion year when you finished and published your book but this year is a number one year for you, a time of new beginnings. It isn’t a time to play small.”

  I knew what she meant. This isn’t a time to lead with my insecurities. When I experience that excited/scary feeling in the pit of my stomach just before I step onto a stage – that’s the call to step into my Bigger Self. When I am in this Larger Self, all that I know is available to me, and I am open to inspiration, which in theology is described as a “divine influence. ” I know that I’m likely to be there when I’m centered in myself from deep inside, standing tall without apologies, and fully present to the environment.

Some activities take us to our Larger Self. In Atlanta, when I was with a group of women who were each in their Larger Selves, it seemed easy to be all that I am and to appreciate the wonder and amazement of each of them. During our time together it seemed that magic happened and magic has continued to happen since as the universe seems to be cooperating with our shared goals.

Atlanta group-58 One of the women sent an email to the group members and told of an experience she had while driving home. She heard a voice that didn’t sound like her own. The voice said, “Prepare to be amazed,” and it seemed to her like the matter-of-fact sounding message delivered at Cape Canaveral – “Prepare for lift off.”  Later that same day when she got home she had a chance encounter with a woman who, when she told her a bit about our weekend, offered to partner with her to achieve our desired goals in their community.

In the days since, many of us have been experiencing similarly amazing chance happenings that are likely to help us achieve our individual pieces of the desired group goal. As I reflect on this experience of communal flaps up and its aftermath in my life, I remind myself to take special care of my Little Self. Our bodies aren’t built to live perpetually in flaps up and my bodyspirit need some flaps down time in order to be prepared for more amazement.

 

The Family Carries On

As our plane finally lifts from the ground in Palm Springs CA. we’re offered a panoramic view of the mountains and red tile rooftops on the valley floor. “Goodbye palm trees. Goodbye warm swimming pools and even warmer hot tubs. Goodbye dear family, till the next time we can arrange to be together from across the continent.” 

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It’s said we don’t remember days or years, only moments. The moments that stand out from this year’s family Christmas vacation are:

- the clicking sounds of cue balls, hopefully hitting other balls into the side pockets, mixed with laughter and the lilt of college boys and adult men’s teasing challenges,

-       the sight of ten family members seated in a circle on the front patio, obeying  the unwrapping gift ritual of my long deceased father’s family – carefully opening one gift at a time in rotation from youngest (16) to eldest (85).

-       The stomping feet of sixteen-month-old Krya Joy as she turns her head from side to side saying an emphatic “no” up and down to say ‘yes’, followed by the show of smiling deep dimples when she gets her way.

Kyra.KevinThis was our tenth holiday season without her. Family’s carry on without a pivotal loved one, and we have done that. The first year we met at a water park in Kansas City. It was strange to be swimming indoors in the middle of winter, stranger yet doing it without their mother, his wife, our daughter. The first spring, we met in Fort Worth to take in the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, something promised before she died. Last year, we met in Colorado for a ski vacation. Some years in between we’ve missed getting everyone together during the holidays but most thanksgivings were spent at my son-in-law’s dinner table in Nebraska with his family; father, brothers, nieces, and cousins.

One summer we hosted the family at our house in Pittsburgh, (the U.S. Open Golf Tournament was being held nearby.) Another summer, the year the golf tournament was in Washington D.C. my brother-in-law hosted us in his home as the tournament was held at his home course. Some springs we’ve gathered to celebrate high school graduations, and soon, we’ll meet for a college one.

family2The photographs will show how the kids have grown into fine young adults, how parents, uncles and grandparents have been aging, the joy of new additions, and how fortunate we’ve been to be able to share such fun times together.

 What the images won’t show is what’s been missing at every family gathering throughout the years. There’s always a moment when I’m reminded, and this year’s moment came when we began passing out the ice cream for dessert. Sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Tori said, “What kind of ice cream is this? It says it’s whipped. Does that mean it’s less calories?” She doesn’t know that particular ice cream was selected because it was her mother’s favorite. She doesn’t know it’s her grandparents’ way of remembering.

Dancing on the Fringe

The streets of Edinburgh Scotland were filled, as they are every August, with performing artists and the tourists and locals who had come to see them. Rich and I, along with 22 other InterPlayers from around the world were among them. RichCatapillerphoto-16Pushing our way through the hordes of mostly young performers on the cobblestone street which is the Royal Mile, we observed the ritual of performers dressed as caterpillars and clowns, giving out flyers, barking as circus midway callers do, to draw attention to the free samples of their art on the makeshift stages of High Street. Though a little less flamboyant, and a good deal older than most of them, we too had came to perform on the Fringe.

Edinburgh Fringe

Edinburgh Fringe

The Fringe Festival, the largest open access arts festival in the world began in 1947 when eight theatre companies showed up uninvited to the Edinburgh International Arts Festival.  The juried arts festival is still in business but the Fringe, officially organized in 1951, has grown way bigger that that one. In fact it’s bigger than anyone could imagine an arts festival becoming. By 1959 there were 494 companies and by this year, 2013, the festival had over 40,000 performers in 359 venues. Unlike those original participants, we did have an invitation from Mairi Campbell, a well-known Scottish folk singer, http://www.mairicampbell.co.uk/

Meeting up with a dozen members of our US InterPlay community, and joining another dozen InterPlayers from Germany, Finland, England, Australia and Scotland, we formed an improv troupe. After practicing together for several days (which was a big part of the fun of it all, along with time spent with fabulous local home stay hosts), we came together at Venue #127, St. John’s Church in the center of the city. Our performance of the Unbelievable Beauty of Being Human was part of the Just Festival, a subset of the Fringe that focused on social justice, spirituality, and peace.mairiUBBH-17

Our well-attended performance was a fitting tribute to the festival’s themes as we danced, sang and told our stories in the moment and on the spot, highlighting what’s wonderful about being human and what’s not so great about it. As one of the elders in the group, this was my 9th performance of Unbelievable Beauty, having participated in the first series of performances in San Francisco CA in 1997, in Sydney, Australia in 2004, and in Seattle and Chicago in the years in between.  Each improvisational performance followed a similar format yet each was a unique and never-to-be-repeated experience for participants and audiences.

In the 50-page program for the Just Festival, which was a subset of the 390 page program for the Fringe, the program description read: “Re-igniting hope for human kind, passionate, funny, honest, affirming of real people and real living. Performers elevate both the miracles and struggles of every day folk in a daring, spontaneous, fresh way.  Directed by InterPlay founders, the program features InterPlayers from around the world. UK debut”.UBBH.Edinburgh1

And so it was, a never-to-be forgotten, Unbelievably Beautiful Experience!

Rituals That Heal

There was dancing in the streets in Pittsburgh, and many other cities around the country last week when the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. Marriage for same sex partners will not soon be available throughout the US, but major bricks in the legal barriers preventing it have been torn down.  DOMA became law in 1996, the year before my then 31-year old gay son died of AIDS. In those days, people like my son were closeted, most to the larger outside world, and many to their own families. Members of the general public often maintained they didn’t know any gay people.

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Seventeen years later, nine million people in the US identify openly as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, 3% of our total population. The public celebrations around the country on June 26th demonstrated the increasingly strong support these brave men and women have earned for themselves and their cause. It gets harder and harder to look at LGBT people as being different than the rest of us, as they speak out regarding their desire to love and be loved and to create a life together that can be recognized as a legal marriage.

 But it is the families of gay and lesbian people that have come to the front in this day and time. There have always been parents whose children were gay, (even if the parents didn’t realize it) but now there are children with gay parents. As Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out in his majority opinion, “DOMA humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.
doma.men.-11

I rejoice that this has happened as quickly as it has. But things have not moved swiftly enough for this warrior mother who, in the mid-1990s wanted for her gay son what he wanted for himself – that it be ok that the love of his life was a man, and that he would be able to marry and have children. My son was hopeful and perhaps a prophet when he believed that someday there would be a cure for AIDS and that someday, gay people like himself would be able to marry. Neither of these developments occurred in time for him. But wherever he is now, I like to imagine that he and his fellow compatriots know that our culture is well on its way toward both goals, and they’re dancing in the streets with us.

Occupying Pittsburgh’s Market Square

Last Thursday’s One Billion Rising Pittsburgh event attracted over 400 people and was organized by New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice, an organization that InterPlayer, Toni McClendon helped to start. These young, mostly African-American women put together on February 14th, with the help of volunteers of all ages, the most soulful, spiritually enlightening, community inspiring, two hour event in Pittsburgh’s downtown Market Square.

In addition to the stage where dancers from the August Wilson Center performed, and hundreds of women danced Debbie Allen’s Break The Chain, another corner of the square contained a tent the size of a solitary confinement space in a prison. The construction held artwork and petitions to obtain release for women incarcerated for defending themselves against the violent acts of intimate partners. A candled altar space occupied another corner, a place for remembering women from our community who have lost their lives to violence, a resource tent offered information about organizations addressing this vital issue, while the Comfort Tent offered support and respite for anyone strongly affected by this topic of violence against women.

When I shared information about this event with Coke Nakamoto, a dancing social worker friend in California, her comment said it all. “Absolutely love the consciousness brought to the Pittsburgh event. What vision and understanding of the bigger dance beneath the dance!”  No wonder I feel so honored to take the over 15,000 steps my fitness tracker counted that day, (three times the national average) to support these women in bringing their vision to such a spectacular reality. 

We The People Won!

In the last few days of the campaign, I sat for hours with eight other women in the garden room of another woman’s house.  Other people moved in and out of the living and dining rooms, all holding lists of likely voters and cell phones, calling to get out the vote for our candidate. We were old, young, and most ages in between, a high school girl, a grandmother, a housewife, a retired teacher. We knew it’s nearly impossible for a single voter to have influence, but joining with others to encourage lots more people to vote, now we have the potential to speak to the direction we want our country to move in the future.

In between shifts on the phone, some of us get packets of names and addresses, get in our cars and drive to different neighborhoods. We climb hills and stairs, knocking on doors, talk to people or leave stickers with information about polling places and the importance of their vote. I met a woman in her 30s, still in her pajamas at 10:30 in the morning who tells me defiantly that she isn’t going to vote. When I asked why she said “because I didn’t want to.”

I wished her a good day, when she gave me this chance to practice the discipline of “bless and release,” an opportunity that comes often when connecting with real people with whom you have a difference of opinion. The women in the garden room admitted in short discussions between calls, this part is rarely easy.

The morning after the election I learned that our team, over the four days had made 10,784 phone calls and knocked on 11,264 doors. Just as someone emailed those figures, the national figures of the get out the vote ground effort arrive. Three million door knocks and 15 million phone calls. No wonder we feel tired.

A lot of us had felt really bad about the 2012 election year process – the extreme amounts of money spent, the negative attack ads, the half-truths and outright lies in the public discourse, and the deafening silence on important issues such as immigration reform and climate change. I had begun to wonder whether our democracy could survive this onslaught to reasoned adult behavior, or whether it even should. It almost seemed like we, as a people weren’t grown up enough to govern ourselves.  

But this morning after I’m feeling elated about the election process I got to be a part of. It seemed to me that we, the people won. I’m thrilled to see that the practices I found so abhorrent did not work. Not one candidate was able to “purchase” an office by using the superpack money of billionaires. Most candidates did not achieve an office as a result of their negative attack ads, and those men who proposed preposterous theories of science and behavior were defeated. And especially, the attempt as voter suppression failed.

I saw in that room where I was calling from, and in the long lines at the polls, and in my conversations with people who voted, voter suppression efforts only fueled people’s determination to exercise their voices by voting. Those of us who cared, and it was great to see how many people did, reached out to others who may have been discouraged or sufferings in other ways, and encouraged them to vote. It made all the difference because in the final hours of election day, the only thing that really matters is whose team shows up at the polls and actually vote.

When the election was over, I felt relieved that both candidates came up to what the moment required. Romney’s gracious, and compassionate concession as he vowed to support the president, Obama’s expressed gratitude to all the people who voted for him, the thousands who worked to get him elected, and those who took part on the other side. I loved hearing him declare his willingness to be the president of all the people; those who voted for him, those that voted for someone else, and those too disheartened to vote at all. Perhaps we are grown-up enough to take part in our own governance.  

Spaces In Our Togetherness

My husband and I were asked to give a talk at a neighboring Alanon meeting last evening. We’d given talks before separately, but never together. There was no time to prepare and I knew there wouldn’t be when I accepted the invitation. But I knew to say yes to this opportunity, a privilege likely to result in a blessing

We decided to divide the presentation into three phrases, and each speak extemporaneously, to each phase. The first was our introduction to addiction, particularly alcoholism, which for each of us occurred at very different times in our lives. The second phase would focus on our early experiences in twelve-step work, and the third with what has happened since we joined Alanon several years ago.

There were the words, and when we think of speeches we think of words. But the words move into the background of my memory of the evening because my awareness was of the spaces in between. It started when Rich and I were seated beside each other looking out onto the thirty or so people in the audience with the moderator seated beside him. I became aware of the molecules of air between us and then between all the figures in the room. It was like we were all floating in a sacred container of silence, the space between the words. I thought of the poem, “Marriage,” by Gibran. “Let there be spaces in your togetherness. And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.” http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/marriage

When the moderator opened the floor to the audience members to respond, I noticed the silence in between the statements that people made. It was like people needed time to come up from the depths of where they were, to collect their thoughts and say them out loud.

A friend who was present in the room told me later that Rich and I together made an impression much stronger than what we made alone. That confirmed what I felt in my own body and relates to what I’ve known for a long time, 1 + 1 equals way more than 2. Looking back, I didn’t say all that I might have said. I didn’t say it in the most articulate way that perhaps I could have. But it was what it was, and I relax into knowing that another message was being delivered, this one beyond words.

It seems a paradox – the more separate we are, the more connected we became. The more connected we became, the more separate we are. Like other lines from the same poem – “Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

I would wish for all my relationships to be like this, with my husband and adult child, my grandchildren and my friends, connected through the spaces in what we call in InterPlay, “a sneaky deep way.”

A New Paradigm of Partying

The calendar has turned from 2011 and the much-heralded year of  2012 is finally  here. Each New Year provides a chance to take a fresh breath and to begin anew, to mark together what is coming to an end and to welcome the year that’s just arriving. How we spend New Year’s Eve might be important in setting this new course.

As a kid, I remember joining the millions of people watching a ball drop in New York’s Times Square. We jumped up and down in our living room in front of the television even though it was not yet midnight in the time zone where we lived. Looking back this might have been a way for our parents to get us to go to bed after 11 pm, giving them an hour of peace and quiet in the old year.

Celebrating with people who are important to me is always my preference, as well as doing something I find invigorating and renewing.  I remember a New Years’ Eve in 1987 spent with my parents, siblings, and adult children in a kind of family reunion in Texas. We dined on the top floor of a skyscraper and danced in the New Year to the accompaniment of a live band. And yes, there were paper hats, noisemakers, and something that bubbled like champagne.

But this year seemed a special turning.  According to the prophecies of the Maya, 2012 marks the ending of a 26,000-year cycle. I wasn’t sure how one should celebrate such an auspicious occasion. My husband and I had signed up for an evening of ballroom dancing that included a supper at midnight, more like celebrations in the past. Then we were invited to bring InterPlay to an event titled, Peaceburgh 2012. Peaceful Gathering of Hands, Nakturnal, Transition Town, Gather the Women, Transformational Alliance, and others sponsored the event. The invitation said, “Join us for a new paradigm of partying!

At this multigenerational potluck event there were no drugs or alcohol but lots of generous sharing of special gifts. Ac Tau, a descendant of the Maya and a recent visitor to Pittsburgh, sent a message asking us to perform a ritual for peace, which we did at midnight. The Plumed Serpent Labyrinth involved a geometric design similar to a maize, finger traced by a number of representative of the community to  connect us with Ac Tau’s community in Mexico and around the globe.

After a time of silence at midnight we were asked to commit to taking one minute a day to become peace throughout the year. For residents of Peaceburgh who recognize that peace is a verb, this was an easy commitment to make. It will be interesting to see at year-end, what a difference this practice has made in our personal and communal lives.

United We Stand

Last weekend InterPlay Pittsburgh participated in the Building Change Conference: a convergence for social change. This three-day conference included skill-building workshops, panel discussions, community dialogues, a film festival, an art show, and an evening of performance art.

Our improvisational troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players performed Friday night on the theme, Changing the World 101.  Two hundred or so conference participants, award honorees, and friends witnessed our 20-minute performance that occurred in the center of an evening of short performances by singers, drummers, dancers, actors, rappers, and musicians – all who use their art as a tool to change the world.

Since our performances are made up in the moment and on the spot, it’s always a bit confusing when we say we practice InterPlay on a weekly basis. But how it works is that a week or two before a performance, we each meditate on the topic or theme, and practice accessing and telling our stories that seem related to it, or to words that people associate with the topic.

The words, “domination” and “fear,” were suggested by audience members when we asked what gets in the way of creating a world that works for all. This brought out a troupe member’s story of how her young son had solved the bullying problem at his school. She had told some version of this story before at one of our practices. But in the presence of witnesses, people passionate about social justice, this simple story became something much more.  As company members joined her, the message her son gave to the bully, (after he had rounded up enough kids for support), became amplified in movement and song. “Whatever you do to one of us – you do to all of us.”

And then, with support from our keyboard musician, the entire company formed a straight line, shoulder to shoulder in solidarity and began moving towards the audience. The song morphed into,“We’re standing together, we’re standing together.” None of this had been rehearsed. It came from the grand goal of the conference, of the Occupy Pittsburgh event that was to take place the following day, and of hundreds of events taking place around the globe last weekend.  I felt in my own body, the connection to my fellow performers, the support from the audience, and the power of standing together. We became, on behalf of everyone in the room, in the nation, and throughout the world, a metaphor and a mantra, for the Power that Unity brings.

Soyinka’s Pittsburgh Visit

We went where a duo like us would rarely go.  We joined with some Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players on a safari to the Sarah Heinz house girls’ camp, and to the Mt. Lebanon Village Inter-generational Games. We celebrated youth and honored elder Betty, and the hundreds of volunteers from all the ages in between that enable folks like Betty to stay in their own homes.  We played with the Pittsburgh Playback Theater troupe and remembered again, that playing together is the very best way to get to know one another.


The African American women at the EVE project and at the black women in law enforcement conference loved you and your drum, flute, and song. Those police women knew you really got them when you asked, “how many times a day do you need to decide, in an instant, whether to enter a situation with a thrust, a hang, a shape or a swing?“

At an in-service for the staff of Gwen’s Girls, we explored the impact of culture and invited the workers to explore their group’s culture as well. Sharing stories as partners, we told each other some of what we knew and some of what we don’t know.  In the listening, we discovered some of what we didn’t know we didn’t know, and some of what we knew that wasn’t so. And it was all a blessed thing.

Godspeed to your next divine assignment, Soyinka. We’ll dance on your behalf until your return engagement in Pittsburgh.