Being Let Loose

Yachats11-10 040“Do you always sit this still?” the physical therapist inquired. “Your head doesn’t move much at all and your shoulders seem frozen. You do walk off balance which is why you came. But you look…way too still somehow. How and why do you do that?” She sighed.

That took me aback. I laughed, a bit embarrassed. Nothing like being told that my muscles were knotted, my posture askew and my neck like a post.

“Well, I was paid to sit at attention for most of my counseling career, about twenty-five years. But now I’m not working for money. Maybe it’s time to loosen things up more.”

I explained that I had sat in an office chair every day. I always leaned forward a little, hands folded in my lap, every sensory avenue tuned to the client who sat before me. Attentive listening it is called. I became so adept at not influencing or distracting clients as they spoke, so calm in the midst of anger, fear, pain and grief, that I would lose sense of my own physicality. I was intent on discovering what their true energy was, where the maze of thoughts and feelings took us. They were demanding puzzles, but shared stories that broke open their insides. And mine, though quietly.

Intuitive responses arise partly from complex and minute informational bits that people share, less with words than with their bodies. What they do not say. I watched and heard. And after a time my feet might get tingly, my hands cold. Headaches geared up. Yawning could creep in by late afternoon; my brain could feel buzzy and empty at once. I realized my circulation wasn’t so great. In between clients, I would shake out the kinks and stretch a little, but  client turnaround time was often five minutes or less. Lunch hours were very short at the desk. For ten or more hours a day I paid attention. I was trained in the art of hearing and enjoyed listening deeply, responding with support and interventions. The rest of the ten to twelve-hour days was spent on documentation via computer.

It was the educational and therapy groups that saved me from becoming immobilized. I enjoy public speaking and sharing new ideas with others, so stood at ease before a crowded room, challenged and conversed with people. But the real bonus: I finally got to move like a human being. I felt free walking back and forth before the group, covering the chalkboard with diagrams and key points. I could let my hands speak; they flew about like happy birds.

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Still, I would return home desperate for a walk and a massage. Just simple relaxation. At eight thirty each night I would walk with my husband or alone if needed in the rain, wind, the sun setting or long set. Then I was returned to myself and my mind would slowly clear, become transparent. Awake but meditative.

Being quiet and still all those years did me no favors. It is against my nature, possibly against all human nature. Let me enter the woods and hike, indulge in long meandering walks. Let me do simple physical labor to ground me, loosen me. I just swept (with a regular broom) and tidied our lengthy sidewalk and parking area today because I wanted to. My landlord could do it and I know more leaves are falling. I felt enlivened and comfortable with the rhythm of sweeping. The crackling bright air filled my lungs. My mind rested and writing ideas came forward, prayers were released, worries made more powerless.

Like most kids, I grew up in full motion–running and swimming, ice skating and tobogganing, bicycling and skipping rope, playing volleyball. I danced every day. I swung from and climbed up trees. I drew pictures, acted, played cello and sang on stages. I was even a cheerleader. Never did I imagine I would sit still for a living. But as a youth when I had to keep my body quiet for, say, one of my father’s concerts, it felt unnatural, hard to pull off. I wanted to use every sense and breathe fully, be spontaneous in mind, spirit and flesh. Move.

It has been many months since I resigned from my last position. I am a woman without a title. Still I sit. I roll my shoulders up and back as I type. I write five to seven hours daily, five to six days a week. This, after all, is the main reason I am home: I have a core-deep, focused, lovely passion for writing. But I am learning once again that I need to get up, do a few exercises, turn on the music and dance around. When I have an anemic poem or a story that mocks me at every turn, outdoors I go. If I’m lucky I hike, but a turn around the neighborhood will do it.

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If it is really storming, then I get busy doing anything. Sometimes all it takes to get blood racing and brain recharging is a simple activity. Vacuuming, for instance, or the orderly folding of laundry.

Earlier this week I decided food would be useful; I tend to forget meals when I am absorbed in something. I pulled out the requisite items: lettuce, tomato, onion, bread, sliced turkey. Tried to shake off frustration about the short story I have revised several times. Realized I should clean the kitchen, so made a swipe or two. Heard my characters yakking in my head, giving directives to each other and me. I got out the mayo and Dijon mustard, then spread each on  bread. And then I put the bread together.

Meantime, I could clearly envision my story’s protagonist, Jasper, sitting on the hillside in his splintery Adirondack chair, gazing at the psychic artisan’s house below. The woman he finds on the far side of strange but likes a little, anyway. He is going to help her out, but how?

And then I figured it all out, what he would do next. Energized again, I took a big bite of my sandwich–Ha! Now for food!–and put it down again. I talked aloud to myself: “Well, that was absolute idiocy!”, with a swear word as exclamation point. It had nothing on it but lettuce and condiments. I had lost track of the physical world a few seconds… yet the very act of moving and doing something so pedestrian had shaken loose the next decent line of the story.

My number one therapeutic intervention to restart creative momentum is walking. Then I get somewhere fast inside my head. The rhythmic swing of legs and arms, heart pumping harder, taking in sounds and colorful sights, finding an array of scents: my mind is loosed. I hear words come alive within and they tell me things I did not know before. They travel from my soul to dodgy (aggressive coronary artery disease) but determined heart, to rapid-firing synapses and back again. I feel and become stronger, opened up, realigned in body and mind. Other creatures don’t think it all over; they just get into gear. So why do I deliberate each time?

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Many situations have been imprisoning in my life. We all know that dark corner feeling. There have been times I have felt like a hostage, emerging with scars and a jaded view. Others have enlightened me more than I imagined at the onset. But if our earth-bound sensory lives can damn us, they also can save us. Just as I must keep my spirit primed with thanksgiving and love of the Divine, I must also give my body opportunities to fully appreciate itself. We are each made all of one piece. We create from fullness and paucity, from expansiveness and the narrows of our lives. Our bodies need us to experience wonders and we need their wisdom. I am a person well acquainted with physical pain yet still I find it so.

And since I am not working for pay, next on my real life list is this: a couple of hours each Friday for a few weeks I will step far away from the desk. I am finally going to take flamenco classes. Flamenco is music and movement that shakes me up and shares life with me. I know there will be good stories and poems arising from this willingness to dance. I will let life and limb loosen more so I can journey deeper into its essence.

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Sing Your Sorrow, Dance Your Joy

I was in the center of downtown Portland for our yearly Galaxy Dance Festival with my family and we watched with admiration each performance. They all swirled and implored, flirted and defied, brought an emphatic ending to one line of music and started anew with a flourish. The costumes and faces were infused with color and feeling. Stories unfolded, frenetic and quiet, subtle, intense.

And there were the women of India, their peacock majesty, each face strongly defined. Their beauty alone stuns. The dances tease and taunt, demand our attention, even with the tiniest movement of fingers and eyes. No one can say they are not illustrious and rarified in their offerings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a youthful modern dance group dancing in the fountain, leaping and strutting. They made the spouting water another partner in their choreographic designs. I watched a child of four or so jump in with them, body quick and at ease, her movements mimicking their own. She is a dancer already, and she was without fear or constraint and strained against her mother’s hands when pulled back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tango always mesmerizes me. I see the romance bloom in each small gesture, the angle of heads, the subtle shapes made with legs and arms, their feet quick and elegant as the couples turned and slid around the floor. The music, poignant and distinctive, beckons one into another world, another time.

But, in the end, it is the flamenco I most come to see. Duende, spark of life that gives us tears and laughter, unfurls before us. I hear it in the cantaora’s voice as she sings cante flamenco, feel it in the complex clapping of hands or palmas, the stomp and whisper of feet. Each bailora’s body and face hold the energy of the world together for those brief moments.

Cante flamenco speaks to me of the terrible sweetness of love. It brings the laughter of youthful dreams. The music and dance tell of hope gained and lost. The women and men, old and young, share their tales. Birth and death play out on this terrain, and also there is both compassion and passion that keep our lives moving from start to end. Flamenco is a light in the confounding darkness. Incandescent. Powerful. It is not for everyone, but it speaks to me. I yearn to join them but call out encouragement, whistle and clap., my feet drumming on the hot concrete.

I grew up dancing. I am not speaking of dance classes; I went to those for years but recall little of them. Dance came to me like running came to others–and I loved to run and tumble, too. I danced in the yard, in the living room, with or without music. Exulted in creating forms with sinew and soul. When I was fifteen I attended a renowned summer arts camp. The dance building overlooked a green lake and when I danced I felt as though I had left the room with mirrors and leapt above water and pines. I was that happy. But I had gone to Interlochen to study voice and cello, so dance was one of the secret doors to freedom. I savored every class and performance and held them close in order to take them back home for the long winter months.

In the novel I wrote, the main character is a dancer. She cannot speak a word of traumatic events, cannot move beyond the damage done. After months of inertia she finally finds her feet again–she dances the sorrow until it transmutes into joy. It speaks for her and she is saved, in part, by dancing her way through the barrier of grief and into life. Her body and soul reawaken.

I worked with Native American women in residential addictions treatment. Though I was the only white woman amid their community of fragile recovery, I saw that they needed more besides lectures and attentive listening. They had been betrayed and battered by life and people, had suffered some of the worst experiences I have ever been told. At the time it occurred to me they needed to share music in their own languages and tell stories old and new. This was good, but there was more to be done. There was too much memory of pain lodged in muscle and bone. The women were so taut with anger or they were bowed over with weariness that they forgot their bodies were their friends.

So, we stretched until they grumbled. And then we danced. We snaked around the room and down corridors where my co-workers stuck their heads out the doors. We shouted and clapped unison rhythms and danced into the field behind the treatment facility. And kept on dancing. This became a weekly happening and many more women joined us. They came not for therapy. They came for joy.

I would like to dance flamenco before I am too old. I have a tricky heart that won’t always do what it should despite several medical interventions. I would just like to pound my feet into the forgiving earth and shape air with my hands, move hands and hips as though every movement matters. I want to dance, as well as live this life, from my center.

We will see if I can find my way to learning flamenco. It could be that cante and baile are too much for this woman. I might swoon from the effort of it, and the crazy fun. Meanwhile, I dance around the house, across the street, under the trees. I dance with music blaring, alone, because it matters to my life. And if I ever happen to die dancing, my heart overcome with the wonder of it, I will be happy.

“My sorrow I express in song

For singing is crying

My joy I express in dance

For dancing is laughing!”

from Language of the Gypsies

The Heart Chronicles #5: Music to Fuel the Heart

The  transformative power of music is an old story; it has been with us from the beginning, even before we made our mark on this earth, or so I believe. It has the capacity to expand or distill our experiences as well as provoke us to think, feel, respond.  The years following my heart event in the woods–which I sometimes think of as “my heart affair”, a communal experience with Mother Nature, God, and my mortality–music became a light that illuminated the passages to more health and deeper well-being. 

Classical music had been a major focus in my life, perhaps an actual life force; it raised me as surely as my well-intentioned parents did. That was just the beginning. I cast an ever-widening net and was introduced to folk and bluegrass, jazz and blues, Motown and world music, with a little pop thrown in. It isn’t surprising, then, that music would be a trustworthy companion as I sought wholeness and health. I had three years of stepping out of the job market, so I often set up camp with the radio and a large collection of CDs. The orderly elegance of classical music was more than a balm to mind and spirit; it raised philosophical questions about human history, the ability to triumph over adversity and the nature of genius. But mainly, concertos made me happy; opera roused me; elegies swept over me like a diaphanous dream. Jazz ran a very close second and I couldn’t get enough of Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Eliane Elias, Karryn Allyson, Kurt Elling, Marian McPartland, Diane Reeves…

But what reached me most came from my Irish heritage, Celtic music, and a second and related form, flamenco. I had always loved this music, but after the matter of the heart affair, it loved me back harder.

How to describe what happened when those sounds erupted and careened out of the old Magnaplanar speakers in the living room? “Swoon” might be an apt word, but I was too busy waiting in the middle of the floor, feeling the rhythm in my feet and legs,  sensing the movement from one measure to the next as it travelled up my torso and into my spine where skin tingled with energy. By the time it reached my brain, in mere seconds, I was ignited by all that mattered: life.

I started to dance, arms raised with hands shaping the air or just loose and quiet at my sides, feet soft, then loud, tapping and then sweeping across the floor.  I could feel my heart gather its strength from the complicated beats that wove themselves around and within me. It was talking to me with a bright sound, making itself known by the beauty of its pumping, keeping me in sync with the music, and vice versa. The voices from the stereo entwined with my own, the musicians called out to me and my heart answered. It answered as though its own being, given over to flights of fancy and sidesteps of glee, weeping tears that stayed pure in the blood and releasing  joy that made pain lustrous in   hollows of loss.  It was a heart that understood the music and the music understood it in return. There was something deeply respectful about the exchange even as it felt a little dangerous: my heart rate increased and sometimes protested as sweat sprang at my chest and forehead–but it kept on pounding.

It was duende, the spark of life, melancholy and ecstasy that issued from the guitars and vibrant voices, the complex clapping of hands and relentless dancing feet. It, too, was the ancient magic of Gaelic words falling over me like a veil, the mystery of life and death that played upon the uillean pipes and whistles, the beating of the bodhran as must have been done ’round a fire burning into the night long ago. I could hear my ancestors singing. I could feel the thrumming of their feet on earth. I stepped forward and raised my hands once more.

So it was that music once more came to my rescue, informed and disciplined me. It gifted me with solace and happiness. It made me bold when I felt like retreating. Notes and beats that stirred the air provided me release when there were not words enough. The sound of voices travelling across cultures and time found me; I felt right at home as I forged a passage to a new life, feet firm on the ground.