Category Archives: the Big Body

Taking To The Streets

Last Friday when I was visiting New York City to celebrate a cousin’s wedding I googled “Things to do this weekend.” Two large-scale street events with themes relevant to my life popped up. The 11th Annual Dance Parade was being held Saturday from 1 – 3 pm. Approximately 10,000 dancers would be dancing down Broadway from 21st Street to Tompkins Square Park in the Village. IMG_3365One hundred and sixty seven groups demonstrating Salsa, Hip-hop, Tap, Ballroom, African, Bolivian, Indian, Chinese, Jazz, and Flamingo – in short, every kind of dance imaginable, organized the event.

Sunday morning AIDS Walk New York was happening through the streets of Central Park – the largest event to protect public health and support people living with HIV/AIDS. Versions of both of these events are held in other cities across the country but the NY versions are likely the biggest and the best.

As a life-long dancer, few things are more rewarding for me than to dance, witness dance and celebrate dance. I welcome any occasion to dance, and I love being inspired and challenged by different types of dance. I know through my own experience and through my studies the gifts that dance brings to our physical health and well being, to our brains and memories, our emotions and our spirits. Though scientific research is currently documenting these benefits, they are not widely known and appreciated in western culture as yet. So a parade and festival are a great way to go. I loved dancing along the sidelines as I snapped pictures of the beautifully costumed people of various sizes, shapes, ages, and abilities, as they demonstrated their cultures and the dances that enliven and invigorate them.

IMG_3420The AIDS Walk opportunity was especially meaningful to me because I had just told one of my friends that the 20th anniversary of my son Ken’s death from AIDS is coming up next month. ”I’d love to find some special way to honor him,” I told her. So here it was, a chance to support a cause that mattered a great deal to Ken and our family. I found my way to the park and the sign-in table after a challenging ride on a under construction NY subway, to seize the opportunity to stand and walk with others who care about this important issue. I felt I had found my tribe; people who have lost friends and family members to the disease, who are living with or know people living with the disease, and whose fondest wish is to insure that no one else need suffer from it.

As I joined into the stream of hundreds of other tee-shirted walkers, clustered in occupational and church affiliated groups, I thought about the power of taking our concerns to the streets. How rewarding it is to enter a group body that is walking on behalf of what we care about and how we want our world to be. I was reminded of a ritual practice and chant I learned from some first nation people, “Every step a prayer.”

Given the strong connection I have to each of these themes, I was amazed that they were both being held the particular weekend of my short visit. When I told one of my husband’s relatives about this she smiled and mentioned a Yiddish word. It’s meaning – “it was meant to be.”

It Matters HOW We Talk About The Issues

tweetybirdFeels worse to me than fingernails on a chalkboard, the way the current public discourse is being conducted. As a parent and family therapist I’ve long known the power of healthy communication and how central it is to the health of a family. Now I’m learning how healthy communication is central to the health of a nation as well.

In healthy families there are ground rules and people get called out when they don’t follow them. Speaking for oneself is critical, along with listening carefully to others to be sure you understand what they’re trying to say. It’s off limits to repeat something that someone else said in confidence (that’s gossip), and name-calling and telling a lie are definite fouls. They destroy the trust that all healthy relationships are based on. 

Since these errors and others have been running rampant in our country, we all seem to be learning the power of unhealthy communication, especially when it’s repeated via the megaphone of blogs and media outlets. This is why I was delighted to linger in my driveway the other day to hear Brooke Gladstone interview

cognitive linguist, George Layoff during the NPR show “On The Media.” He analyzed Trump’s use of language in his Tweets, labeling 5 types of miscommunication or what I would call “fouls” or “distortions.”

  • Pre-emptive Framing – Putting the idea out there first so that people will more likely accept your take on a subject. His example – “the Democratic National Committee were embarrassed because they lost big.” Fact checking, the truth is – the election was the closest in modern times.
  • Diversion – Get people talking about something else rather than the issue. This happened the day the lawsuit involving Trump University was settled.
  • Trial Balloon – Put an idea out there and see how people react. This has been around a long time but usually someone on the team does it so it’s easier to walk back if the reaction to the idea is not a good one.
  • Deflection – Attack the messenger instead of responding to the message. “Meryl Streep is overrated.”
  • Bad news – Even in 140 characters it’s possible to have all four errors in the same tweet.

My three children introduced me to some of these “slight of mind games,” Mostly good kids, there were occasions when they attempted to manipulate the truth, and their parents, for their own gains. We of course would call them on it, and the maturation process helped them develop healthier ways of getting what they wanted.

Dr. Lakoff recommended that the media call out the errors and not just repeat them, thus aiding and abetting the misinformation Trump is hoping to spread. He advised members of the media to do what good parents do in families, tell the truth, report the errors in the tweets, and call out what kind of errors they are.

ImprovJam2My recommendation – Trust the structure of Improv’s “Yes And.”    Last Sunday afternoon, my improv troupe Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players and guests artists played with the tough stuff inherent in these tough times. In the presence of respectful witnesses we used the tools and techniques of InterPlay to express our reactions and concerns though movement, voice, and story. The outcome – fun, and a strengthened resolve to move forward through community collaboration and connection.  

What Happens After the Election?

no-problem-can-be-solved-from-the-same-level-of-consciousness-that-created-it-albert-einsteinOur county’s going through a tough time. No matter which candidate you favor, or whether “none of the above,” is your preference, you would probably agree that the way forward looks bleak whoever wins next Tuesday. Bitterness is the residue of the quarrelsome public conversations that have left many of us feeling disrespected and discouraged. Parents and teachers are embarrassed that our children have witnessed grown-ups’ engaging in behavior we would not tolerate from them, – name-calling , bullying, attacking one another’s personalities. Whatever happened to the loyal opposition – respectful discussions between people who hold different points of view.

We like to feel that either the situation is hopeless but it isn’t serious or it’s serious but it isn’t hopeless. But when the situation feels both serious and hopeless, we fear for the survival of our democracy.

What is the way forward towards a resilient recovery, personally and as a nation? Since I’ve become a kind of expert in helping people get through tough stuff I plan to practice what I teach.

  • Keep an optimistic mindset, no matter the circumstances – Our right to vote was hard fought for by our ancestors and for many peoples around the globe, voting is still an allusive dream.
  • Give and get help. I’m walking my community on behalf of the candidates I support, every step a prayer that encourages and hopefully enables others who agree with me to cast their votes.
  • Take part in rituals that heal – Remembering what Einstein said that “no problem can be solved from the level of consciousness that created it,” on November 13th, I plan to join a national ceremonial Day of Healing and Reconciliation sponsored by the Meditation Museum in Washington DC. In the spirit of unity, forgiveness and solidarity there will be local events around the country.

Rituals are the way we heal. Join me in this national ritual that will allow us to step back for a broader perspective, identify our commonalities as human beings and come together in a container large enough to hold our differences. We owe this to our children and grandchildren coming after us.

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.


Fueling Our Resilience

Seeing the effects of the storm Sandy renewed my interest in resilience, the capacity to make it through ordinary and extraordinary events. Whether it’s something nature dishes out; droughts, flood, or hurricanes, or people caused events; wars, dislocation, or enslavement, the effects of these events can stay in individual and community bodies for generations, affecting people’s present day functioning.

I attended a lecture recently at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Race and Social Problems on the topic of “Bodies Don’t Just Tell Stories, They tell Histories: Embodiment of Historical Trauma and Micro-aggression Distress.” The lecturer was Karina Walters, a professor of Social Work at the University of Washington and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. A researcher on the health effects of trauma within her own tribe and also with indigenous people in New Zealand, she provided amazing insights into how the body takes up and passes on trauma’s effects.

Anthropological research has documented that women pregnant during a famine tend to overfeed their children later on, leading to obesity and diabetes. In exploring the effects of this in her own tribe she met with the grandmothers about their practices of feeding their children. The message they gave her was something like, “We’re big people. We’ve always been big people. We don’t want some skinny white lady coming in here and telling us what to feed our children.” After this meeting Karina found pictures of the tribe from the middle of the nineteenth century and, (as she had suspected) the people were not big, but slender and fit.

What brought about this change in succeeding generations, in the shape and size of tribe members, along with the corresponding changes in their health status?  Once the people were made to live on reservations they could no longer stay true to, what Karina calls, their ancestors “original instructions.” The years of little to eat and having to eat governmental surplus rations destroyed their ability to continue the practices of securing, preparing and eating that had kept their ancestors healthy for thousands of years.

This phenomenon of people becoming bigger (obese) and less healthy than previous generations is becoming common in the U.S, especially in food deserts where fresh fruits and vegetables are unavailable or financially prohibitive. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, even those of us who have more resources, what is interfering with our carrying out our “original instructions” around feeding ourselves. Relying on mass-produced food which contains massive amounts of sugar, chemical additives, and genetically modified grains, keeps us from growing our own vegetables, serving simple whole foods, and reserving sugary treats for special occasions and community celebrations.

As we offer gratitude for the bounty of America’s food harvest and remember those who do not have the resources to eat in the healthy ways of their ancestors, may we be mindful that today’s children carry in their own bodies, the health and welfare of their own futures and those of their offspring, that the future resilience of a people resides in the bodies of their young.

The Mileau Makes the Difference

After the national InterPlay Leaders Conference I’m racing around, I am because you are- african proverbtrying to gather my belongings while the woman providing a ride to the airport waits outside. A couple of friends observing my movements begin teasing me about my quirky habits, like the way I gird myself with my purse so my hands are free as I move across the retreat center campus. As I am packing my carryon bag a song begins running through my head, “They’re gonna miss me when I’m gone. They’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.” This makes me laugh and causes my mind to move forward in time, to when I’m no longer able to be with this loving community in body.

I reconnect with my friends on the way to the parking lot and sing them my song, changing it a bit to include them, “They’re gonna miss us when we’re gone. They’re gonna miss us when we’re gone.”  I tell them that members of the community will tell stories about us after we die. “And since we’re not finding a cure for cancer, we won’t make the history books. These stories will be our legacy in the world.” My friend Phil laughs and suggests, “Maybe we should have them (the community members) start practicing the stories now!”

This song, this recognition of being in a community that cares for one another, that brings out the best in one another, seems an answer to a deep desire of my youth. I remember reading about writers and artists and scientists who ended up  individually making huge and lasting contributions to the world. It turns out they  knew each other, associating with one another in Paris cafes or Sunday afternoon salons, during formative periods in their lives. They provided mutual support, inspiration, and challenge for one another, as people and as creative art and science makers. Even as a teenager with little experience of my own I knew that they were each made better by these associations. A friend taught me an African saying that seems to fit this group-as-incabator-of-the-self model.”  “I am because you are.”

Mina Bissell-Context Shapes Content

Another friend turned me on to a TED talk that seems relivant here.

Mina Bissell’s insight is that cancer development might be caused by context and architecture. When they injected a cancer cell into chickens it caused cancer but when they injected it into chicken embryos it didn’t. This suggested that, “the micro-environment in which the cancer cell resides dominates the cancer gene itself.” In the lab, growing cancer cells on a healthy scaffolding enabled them to become normal again.

Like at a well-run boys and girls club, scout troupe, or sports team, individuals meet in an environment that provides the scaffolding for healthy behavior. As the older, more experienced members interact with the newbees, they each become more than they were, growing and developing strengths and skills. Hanging out with my InterPlay friends has helped me to sing. “I am because you are.”

Creating Our Reality?

I have found it more than a little annoying when people would say, “we create our own reality.” When my daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago, this expression became especially insulting and hurtful. Who, in or out of their right mind, would create a major illness for themselves? And how can people heal if they are busy blaming themselves for inflicting this self-harm.

But my understanding of the grain of truth in this expression is “evolving” to borrow the verb President Obama used for himself recently. In looking through the lens of quantum physics, energy responses to mindful attention. Waves become particles and particles become waves related to their being observed. So as the observer, we can and do affect the world around us, and the outcome of events. Most people have noticed that what we pay attention to grows or expands. But we also know wishing and praying doesn’t always make something become a reality.

An articulate description of quantum physics and the mind/body/universe connection is in Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself by Joe Dispenza. It seems the key to creating our own reality is in having an alignment between our thoughts, which are the language of the brain, and our feelings, which are the language of the body. When they are not in alignment, (we want wealth but we feel poor) the messages we are sending into the quantum field are incoherent and mixed.

The quantum field is an invisible intelligence, a field of  infinite possibilities, a universal intelligence. As Dispenza states it, “our mission is to move into a state of consciousness that allows us to connect with this intelligence and see the results that we want in our lives.”

An important aspect of this process of what I would call, co-creating our reality is that outcomes must surprise us.  We don’t control how our prayers are answered and if we can predict how an outcome will occur, we are in the world of classical Newtonian physics, the world of cause and effect, which continues to operate alongside the quantum one. When we can hold a clear intention of what we want, leave the “how” details to the unpredictable quantum field, and enlist others to join our intentions, the one thing that is predicable are the surprises that will unfold.

Circles of Concern

I overheard several of my women friends admitting to one another that they don’t read the newspaper or watch television. Nearly a week after a gunman went into a local mental hospital, shot one man dead and wounded seven others before a campus policeman killed him, they hadn’t heard about the incident. I found this deeply disturbing.

I know these women to be sensitive, compassionate, spiritually oriented people, and I’m sure part of their refusal to not pay attention to the news is that much of what is broadcast as news, isn’t. And much of what is reported locally, nationally, and internationally, tells of horrific events in such graphic detail, viewers are at risk for developing vicarious trauma by just by reading or viewing the images.

Once the women heard about the shooting incident, they were appalled, and deeply concerned for the victims of such a senseless tragedy. For the family members, like the fiancée of the man that was killed, and his parents who had already lost their only other child, a daughter, when she was killed by her boy-friend a couple of years ago. Once they knew of them and what they are dealing with, they weep and wondered how such terrible tragedies can be visited on simple, good people.

One women expressed concern for the campus policeman who was put in the situation to have to take someone’s life. Used to dealing with tipsy teenagers and college pranksters, his heroic actions saved lives, but needing to shoot to kill would have been farthest thing from his mind when he reported to work that day.

Another women expressed concern for the patients in the hospital and the staff who were put on lock down for several hours. And what about the ripple effect involving others in the community? Until the city police could give the all clear to the schools and offices surrounding the incident, an entire neighborhood had to be locked down, leaving  hundreds of family members worrying and praying for their loved ones’ safe return.

There is danger for compassionate empathic people, in learning the details of even a single incident like this one. But with traditional media outlets cranking out news 24/7, and blogs, emails and facebook, we are all at risk for becoming overwhelmed. How many people can we afford to let in to our circle of concern because once we know about them, they are in our thoughts and prayers, our nightmares and dreams?

People Who Need People

We see it in their cloudy bloodshot eyes as they stand in the midst of the rubble that used to be their homes, shops, and schools. A thief has come in the night and stolen all objects that connect them to their past. This devastation now overwhelming their futures. They can’t expect much assistance from insurance, since to insurance companies, tornados and floods are Acts of God, not covered unless you’ve purchased special riders, unavailable in some parts of the county.

How to start? Where to begin?  Friends and family comfort one anther as they rummage through the ruins to salvage former treasures; a child’s favorite blanket, grandmother’s dented silver candlestick, a graduation picture now unframed. An elder hugs a grandchild, another sits expressionless, staring into the pit of what was once a home.

But scores of people from nearby neighborhoods and towns have started to arrive, descending on this community in trucks carrying tools and gear to help haul away debris. A retired schoolteacher lifts a fallen tree trunk from what’s left of a roof. A church lady proudly produces a chain saw, starts its buzzing motor, and creates small pieces, manageable enough to load

Photojournalists and newscasters from the major cities arrive and report on another Act of God that is occurring in the midst of this meltdown. They ask the strangers why they’ve come? “Someday we might need this help,” they say. “How do you feel about all these people you don’t know coming to help you.” A man tries to answer the question, but shakes his head in bewilderment, unable to find his voice through his tears.

These pictures, broadcast across the globe, and the interviews with the helpers and the helped confirm what Barbara Streisand suggested years ago in a song, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”

Paying Attention

I’ve always had “a sensitive body,” one of those good/bad things, like being way taller or way shorter than other people. My body sends me messages that are hard to ignore, like red blotches on my face and puffiness around my eyes when I eat something like Mexican peppers that most people consume without incident.  On the advantage side, my body often gives me signals like a warning that the person seated in front of me is not as they appear. I’m sure everyone has these signals but mine seem a bit hyper-tuned at times. And being a dancer, I probably pay closer attention to this than other people.

Often an image accompanies the body sensations. Like last night, I awoke in the middle of the night in quite a bit of physical discomfort in my abdomen and head. I saw my body as a piece of hand woven fabric, being stretched from both ends. The fabric was becoming transparent and frayed at the edges and holes were being created in its center. 

Through the years I’ve learned that I pick up “stuff” that seems to be in the air, and then try to connect with where it might be coming from.  In mentioned this to my husband this morning, I remembered that, according to one expert on the Mayan calendar, today is the end of the Mayan 5125 year cycle. Many other experts place this transition at December 21st.  I have no opinion on this controversy, and little knowledge of what it would mean, one way or the other.  I do know this to be a time of rapid change and upheaval around the globe.

I have been describing sensations of an overarching chaos that seems to be permeating everything, both inside and outside of me. I guess as a way to impose some order, while standing in the hallway talking to my husband, I reached up to straighten a small picture frame on the wall along side the staircase. This action unsettled the picture above it, and it dropped on my hand, slicing a shallow cut that required a bandage to stop the bleeding.