Category Archives: Past Events

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

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.

 

Excerpt from “Warrior Mother”

People would often say to me, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, children dying before their parents.” They said it when my thirty-one-year-old son, Kenneth, died of AIDS and again, seven years later, when my forty-two-year-old daughter, Corinne, died of breast cancer. When Corinne died, I got a phone call from my cousin, who had lost her own daughter in a car accident twenty years before. “This shouldn’t be happening to you,” she said, in an effort to comfort me. When I asked whom it should be happening to, she said, “Someone who hasn’t already lost a child.”

But I prefer not to think this way. When I am in that place of questioning the circumstances of my own life, I picture the gravestones in the historical cemeteries my history-buff father took us to visit as children. We kids would run from gravestone to gravestone, doing the math and discovering children our own ages or younger buried there. I remind myself that it’s only in recent generations and in a country as fortunate as our own that parents can expect to raise all their children and to predecease them.

So I set out to write about my experiences as a mother who has lost two of her three adult children to horrific diseases. I voluntarily reentered those years of anxiety, trauma, and hope to better under- stand what transpired there. I realized that those of us who survived have been profoundly changed, and so I have written partly for my own healing and partly to share with others the learning and strength I discovered. Many people did not understand my spending so much time writing about this, especially my husband, Richard, whose style of grieving was entirely different. Rich and I finally came to an under- standing several years into this project.

Rich and I are both behavioral health professionals. We share a conviction that many mental health problems are caused by a lack of connection to people’s spiritual selves. In our work and for our own personal development, we use the community- building tools of dance, song, and story. In the jargon of our professions, this is called using the arts for individual and social transformation. For ten years we founded and co-directed a behavioral health care clinic called Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. This was the name of the clinic from 1987-1997 until we were purchased by Corphealth. Then it became Iatreia, Inc. You’d think that the experience of our professional careers and the synchronicity of our shared beliefs would have given us some special insight into each other’s grief. Not so.

Five summers ago, Rich sent me off to participate in a writers’ workshop with the comment, “I hope someday you will find some- thing more pleasant to write about.” When I returned from the writers’ workshop in Iowa City, held a couple of weeks after the town had suffered a significant flood, I brought back two empty sandbags, like the thousands of bags of sand stacked as barricades against the rising waters. My empty sandbags had been decorated and made into handbags by artists in the com- munity and sold to raise money to help the local Habitat for Humanity fund the cleanup efforts. At home I laid out my decorated sandbags alongside a folder of my writing. “My writings are my sandbags,” I told Rich. “We have to make art out of what happens to us, or at least some- thing useful, and we don’t get to pick what that is.”

People have asked me how I’ve survived all the tragedy and loss in my life. Perhaps I’ve written the stories of my journeys with my children, other family members, and my best friend to answer that question for myself. Witnessing how hard both my children fought to stay alive and all that they were willing to endure to gain more life has defined my grieving process. I never wanted to dishonor them by wasting one moment of whatever precious life I am given.

Like a prospector searching for gold, with the help of my journal, I have panned and sifted through these experiences—of birth, death, and the places in between. I have shaken the sieve in such a way as to uncover, among the dirt, pebbles, and debris, the valuable shiny elements in these stories. This sifting and sorting has been, like the experiences themselves, tough at times, but also enlightening. I’ve come to appreciate the many ways that people confront illness, diagnoses, treatment decisions, and, yes, even death, and the many faces and masks of grief. And ultimately, I’ve come to see the demands made on me as a mother as requiring me to become a warrior mother. In our lifelong mother roles, whether our children are sick or well, young or old, like warriors, we engage wholeheartedly in a cause, and like spiritual warriors, we are asked to use our compassion and wisdom to help our children and ourselves grow and thrive through whatever life sends our way.

(from Warrior Mother – Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and the Rituals that Heal by Sheila K. Collins PhD.)