Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Stories on the Bus: Robert the Dancing Man

He carefully opened the pages of his pocket calendar to the following week, and twisted the base of the pen slowly, writing the bus and walking directions I read from my phone, to help him navigate his way to the nearest Goodwill. I sat next to him on the bus bench to show him the map, and he balanced a plastic bag on his lap, the outline of what looked like a record showing, explaining that he would go to the Goodwill another day, there was no time today.


We both waved the local bus by, agreeing it was better to wait for the rapid. Less stops, he said. Telling him my name, he introduced himself as Robert. He was dressed with care, bow tie, slacks, his hat tipped just so. He was in his 70s, perhaps, it was hard to tell. We boarded the bus together, and he sat across the aisle from me. As the bus rumbled into motion, he asked me where I lived in the city. Robert lived downtown, and loved it there, how it has changed, how diverse it is. And he dances, he said. He’s always dancing, but especially in the summer, he dances at shows, live music in the parks, wherever.

Our conversation paused as everyone was interrupted by a loud, angry voice, our attention drawn to the front of the bus where a man in his late 50s began spouting racist, hateful vitriol about someone who had just boarded. I went silent, unsure how to confront an older, bigger man, but the bus driver quickly took care of the situation. He pulled the bus over, told him that it was unacceptable to say such things, and he would need to leave if he were to continue to speak that way. Incensed, the man spat racist, hateful words at the driver, and stepped off the bus.

Robert and I exchanged looks – disgraceful, Robert said. Robert the dancing man asked me to come to one of his performances, and gave me his phone number to call during the summer, when he would be dancing outdoors more often. I thanked the bus driver as I left, telling him I had been fearful, and hadn’t known what to do, and was grateful for him stepping in, and up. The dancing man nodded to me as I stepped off the bus and watched it lumber away, carrying so many stories, stopping to drop each person into their chapter as we all danced around each other, sometimes with anger, other times with curiosity, and often with grace.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Rainy Season in California and Congo: The Ordinary as Extraordinary

“In creative work – creative work of all kinds – those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. … Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come – for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.” ~ Mary Oliver, Upstream

We woke to rain in L.A. today, and from my desk I hear the consistent pattering of it, and passing cars’ tires parting the standing water on the street, the sound almost louder than their engines, passing through, in, on top of, parting water to make way. At this moment this is my connection to the nature of my city, the courtyard beyond our front door filled with succulents and flowers – a lone iris in full bloom closed in on itself in the cold and wet in the midst of a tangle of rosemary that the gardener cuts back to keep clear the path for us, our neighbors, and the feral cats that stroll through as if they own the place (which they clearly do), sunning themselves with one wary eye open for the footfall that announces the mailman, the UPS delivery. It is 6:28 a.m. on the 11th of January and dark, cars spray water from their tires, and the cats must be in hiding in some dry, underground crawl space somewhere. They have survived the coyotes who brazenly wander the neighborhoods in the mid-afternoon sun and now, they will survive the rain.



This is the ordinary, and extraordinary. Mary Oliver has been my teacher in paying attention, to the small moments in life, how extraordinary is the movement of an insect or the soaring of a hawk if one simply pays attention.

The rainy season in Los Angeles reminds me of the rainy season in Congo. It was this time five years ago that I first stepped foot on the muddy roads of rainy Mumosho with Cate Haight, my friend and Action Kivu co-founder. So much has changed, in my life and in the life of Action Kivu. I am now able to work part-time for this organization, communicating with our partners in Congo, taking the photos and stories they send and sharing them with you, thinking up fundraisers and event planning and working on budget details and grant applications and learning the tricks of QuickBooks and a bit of French and why goats are so important in Shi culture.

This is my art, my commitment to the unknown, stepping into the fear that I am not enough, that I don’t know how to properly convey all that is bursting inside the stories of the women and girls in our Action Kivu family, that I won’t raise enough money, that I’m not doing enough, there is so much to be done. I must find my art in the ordinary made extraordinary by my attention, in the QuickBooks entries that I usually find the menial part of my work. Entering donations, I wish I could see each entry as the gift it is, how someone chooses to send $10 or $100 each month, a portion of income earned from their work, whether it is a teacher who stays up late reading the spelling words of a ten year old or the arguments of a college student, a dentist who peers into the cavities of someone who squirms under the bright light and knowledge that they didn’t floss as much as they had promised, a sewing instructor who doesn’t make quite enough to buy all the material she wants, an artist working in paint or on a desktop, a filmmaker putting ideas into pictures, each not sure what tomorrow will bring, but choosing to share part of their life by giving to a group of women and girls in Congo. They send money to pay for a sewing instructor to go to work each day in Mumosho, for a literacy teacher to prepare her lesson, a baker to prep ingredients for her bread-making class. In cities and towns around the U.S. and the world, artists and teachers and makers and doctors and students and poets send a portion of their earnings to Congo, to bolster up a community of women and kids they’ll probably never meet, knowing that their money is helping weave together a strong, supple fabric that holds up and wraps around us, that is the society we all live in, no matter how many miles separate us.

It’s rainy season in Los Angeles, and the cars cut swaths over wet roads, swishing as their drivers navigate traffic and potholes and stoplights on their way to work: to teach, to clean, to operate machines or on people, to serve food or coffee, to type reports, to make calls. It’s rainy season in Mumosho, and cars slide sideways on muddy roads, transporting workers to the bigger city of Bukavu, women walk carefully, picking their way through the mud to the Peace Market where the roof will keep them dry as they sell bananas, fish, and loaves of bread made at the Women’s Center.  We shake off umbrellas, drops of water making entryways and the floors of buses slick, they shake off rain drops from dresses and brush off jeans that will dry while they spend their day inside the center, learning to sew, to weave baskets, to bake bread and to read and write, an alphabet denied to them as little girls who were not sent to school.

We celebrate the rain in this California drought, but as we head home at the end of the day, are happy to see the sun breaking through the clouds, low in the sky as it sets over the hills, the Pacific. The women and girls in Mumosho walk back outside into the late afternoon, the sun out and low in the sky over the surrounding mountains, making a muggy, warm evening. They make their way home, stepping through the wet grass along the muddy road, minds churning with a new trick of a stitch learned, arms filled with finished woven baskets to sell at the market, and the magic of an alphabet coming to life to tell their stories.

This life is extraordinary. Make art out of every bit of material it gives you.



Photo credit: Hélène Estèves

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Wintering the Revolution: Grounding Into the Lessons of the Earth and the Magic Beneath Our Feet

Mired in inaction and uncertainty and quite frankly, despair, the writing process led me to ground down into the lessons of the earth.


It’s day three of the New Year, and I look at the sticky note John Oliver instructed me to place at my desk: This is not normal. Normally I set intentions in a new year, I reflect on what I was grateful to have learned from the previous year, and what I’d like to try differently. This new year is not normal. Time feels tangible, as if I’m moving through each day in thick liquid. My movements lack direction, and grace. I feel suspended in inaction – uncertain what to do in this new reality. I nodded in connection with writer Lisa Boldin while reading her recent piece on Spirituality & Health entitled Practices to Support Your Inward Journey: “If I am not careful I will slip into a place of fear with no known recourse. I am a “do-er”, an action oriented person who has been socially engaged to create positive change in our community. At this moment in time I am unsure of what action to take or how to make my voice heard.”

Boldin’s choice is to be quiet, to put into practice the teaching of Ayurveda that you treat a complex presentation with a simple remedy. That when faced with the unknown, you wait for inspiration. She writes of the winter practices of waking early for meditation or writing, taking the time to sip a cup of hot tea or water, bundling up for walks in the colder weather, and befriending your body through stretching and yoga.

In my mind I know that to ground oneself in love and a quiet mind is always a good practice, to be able to act from a place of calm, especially when faced with chaos and tumult. I want to be the quiet, steady center in the midst of the spinning spokes of the wheel. But somehow that feels like privilege – that we don’t have time for reflection. Various social media sources are telling me we’re not doing enough to stop a tyrant. I don’t know what to do. I have never felt so helpless.

And I know we – I – have not been doing enough, for decades now. That police forces have been gearing up with military grade equipment and killing black people and arresting brown people in record numbers, and we haven’t been doing enough to stop that. That the rich are getting richer, and the disenfranchised are losing even greater ground, and Skid Row has taken on new neighborhoods in Los Angeles. People do not make enough money to rent a room, and we turn away in disgust or shame from those without a home who use sidewalks as toilets. But where are they to go?

Fun fact: The word defecate not only means “to discharge feces from the bowels,” but also "to free from impurity or corruption."

It’s time to defecate all over the U.S. governing bodies and our cities – to free our systems from impurity and corruption.

I still don’t know how to do that. But I do know that this feeling of impotence is exactly what keeps people quiet, trapped. We look for someone else to show us the way. And while I want to learn from those who have gone before me, from the leaders and do-ers of the various civil rights movements, I don’t want to wait for them to tell me what to do. I want to embrace what Alice Walker writes: “It was the poet June Jordan who wrote ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for.’ Sweet Honey in the Rock turned those words into a song. Hearing this song, I have witnessed thousands of people rise to their feet in joyful recognition and affirmation. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for because we are able to see what is happening with a much greater awareness than our parents or grandparents, our ancestors, could see. This does not mean we believe, having seen the greater truth of how all oppression is connected, how pervasive and unrelenting, that we can ‘fix’ things. But some of us are not content to have a gap in opportunity and income that drives a wedge between rich and poor, causing the rich to become ever more callous and complacent and the poor to become ever more wretched and humiliated. Not willing to ignore starving and brutalized children. Not willing to let women be stoned or mutilated without protest. Not willing to stand quietly by as farmers are destroyed by people who have never farmed, and plants are engineered to self-destruct. Not willing to disappear into our flower gardens, Mercedes Benzes or sylvan lawns. We have wanted all our lives to know that Earth, who has somehow obtained human beings as her custodians, was also capable of creating humans who could minister to her needs, and the needs of her creation. We are the ones.

Will being quiet this winter, rising early to write and process my thoughts, show me actions to take? I know to join people’s protests, to sign letters from Amnesty International, to contact my representatives or world leaders to let them know they are not acting in a vacuum, that we are watching, and we have had enough. But when it comes to our own leader, I’m looking for quick fixes – to do something to ensure DT and his band of white supremacists don’t get a chance to think that they are the majority, that their might makes right. But these ideas, these people, did not rise up in one night, or even over the course of that year-long election. These are ideas and practices that have been festering and rising and falling for centuries.

Many of us who think racism and violence are abhorrent were often able to look away, to be distracted by our own safe surroundings. In general, white privilege. But now that violence, divisiveness, racism, sexism and misogyny have been given not only a national and global platform, but a face, we cannot look away. It’s in our news feeds. It’s on the television. It’s on the street corner. And it’s always been there, so the action to eradicate it will not be speedy, or possibly ever fully realized. But it is the process of doing so, and being so, that is the revolution.

The revolution will occur in our everyday actions, how we choose to respond to violence, to hate. How we choose to talk to our coworkers, our neighbors, the barista making our cup of coffee. Whether we choose to ask someone what they think, and listen deeply, letting their thoughts, their experiences, their thoughts be heard. Speaking to a stranger on the street, asking their name, what they think of what is happening in their neighborhood, in their city. Gloria Steinem, speaking in conversation with Jill Soloway just before the new year, encouraged us to gather together, to be with each other in discussions, over meals. In her book My Life on the Road, she writes about listening, that one of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak.

Winter naturally slows us down. The days are shorter, darker, encouraging us to stay inside near the heater or a fire, to light candles that provide flickering light. The days are colder, causing us to take more time to bundle in warm clothes, to peel off scarves and coats and hats upon entering someone’s home or restaurant or pub. It is, by its nature, a time for reflection, wooly thinking, staring into a candle’s flame. But this winter, the world feels like it is spinning out of control.

Returning to the Ayurvedic theory Boldin references – what is the simple response to a complex presentation? When it appears that the world is cold, seemingly without life, that we are a frozen people, uncertain what to do, where to take action, when to be still and listen, we remember that in winter, forces we cannot see are active beneath the surface. Under the layer of frost and ground that looks hard, cold, and dead, roots and animals burrow, their perfectly evolved systems processing stored food, roots releasing water to endure colder temperatures, the sugar and salts in their cells acting as antifreeze.Mulch, whether from the falling leaves of autumn or a compost provided by human caretakers, provides a nutrient-rich blanket of insulation.

Gary Watson, head of research at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle reminds us of the power of the earth to sustain life: "There's always warmth in the earth. The soil may be freezing from the surface, but it's always thawing from below."

The day after the election, my partner and I went downtown, to a favorite bookstore and market, to read the ideas of others, to be surrounded by strangers. In response to a shopkeeper’s usual question: How are you, I gave the rote response, I’m well, before realizing, I am not well. And voicing that, she replied the same. We talked for 20 minutes about the shock of learning so many people had not exercised their right to vote, or had voted for a hateful, bigoted, misogynist. We were shaky. We talked about how to come together, to host dinners and meet over meals to move forward, to create change. My partner and I walked down the streets of Los Angeles, passing several people crying openly. I wanted to stop and hug a young 20 something. I offered my card to the stranger in the shop, should she need another guest at her party in planning the revolution.

Taking the time to connect with others, wherever I am, these are my first steps in the long-game of resistance and revolution this winter. To pay attention. To ask people to speak their stories, their truth, and amplify them. To give a coat to someone who is cold. To listen to the mother who tells me her young daughter’s cancer has returned, and remember that most people you meet are the walking wounded, and to forgive them when they snap. To forgive myself when I do not act in love, when I snap in anger at a loved one, when I travel through a day in a fog of my self-concern and do not stand up for someone, and once again set the intention to pay attention. To walk slowly, carefully, over the frozen ground, thoughtfully choosing to act in love, in embrace of the other. To remember that after winter, the ground thaws, and we when we sweep away the rotting leaves we reveal small green shoots of life. To remember the magic that is beneath our feet, thawing from below.