Yesterday after work I took a long bath without my mobile phone. Without earbuds. No podcast, no music, no news.

I can’t remember the last time I did that.

I had a rush of ideas. Most of them related to work, but that was fine really. Creativity feels good regardless of the arena. I got out of the tub, dried off, and worked at the computer until bedtime. I have a separate chrome browser for school-related bookmarks. At eight o’clock I closed it for the next 12 days.

Today though, I’m thinking about work again. About how I teach first-year drama students to be conscious of personal props, the items that become the habitual gestures and defining physical characteristics of their role’s personality. Glasses, scrunchies, cowboy boots, soda bottles, toothpicks. By the third year we are talking about Richard Schechner and our social behaviors related to personal props that prompted him to insist for a time that his Performance Group play in the nude.

For years now I’ve used my keys as an example of a personal prop. I have work keys. I don’t have a car, so I don’t have a car key. We have a code on our front door, so I don’t have a house key either. When I pull my work keys out of my backpack, I take on a role: teacher. My work keys are incredibly symbolic. Students will ask me to unlock the costume storage room, or a rehearsal room. Or by the third year, they may ask to borrow my keys so they can do it themselves.

At some point years ago, I became hyper-aware of my work keys. How I would actually cling tightly to them when I felt a class of 30 restless students taking control of a situation that should have been under my control. Weirdly, my noticing this – stepping back and taking on the role of the director in relationship with my “character” – I was able to access when control was necessary and when it wasn’t. I could make more conscious choices about my “role” as an instructor. These days, half the time I have no idea where my keys are – which I’m certain is not something my boss wants to know.

Yesterday finding myself in the bathtub without my mobile phone, I had the same kind of epiphany. We read and talk a lot about social media and how we can passively allow it to define us. But the phone itself – the device – has come to partially define me. My mindless connection to this object, and its ability to connect me to a world of ideas to occupy my thoughts every moment, is shaping my behavior. It is determining how I move in the world. Literally: in the bath, one elbow propped on the edge of the tub to hold the phone dry. My shoulder twisted slightly. My neck under stress.

I’ve believed for a long time that we are nothing more than what we do: what we think and how we interact with the world. And that thinking and interacting with the world are interconnected in such a way that one defines the other – reinforcing or challenging who are “are” at any moment. I believe this is how we can change. How we do change.

I’m going to stop grasping at my mobile phone. Stop clinging to my sense of self: the productivity shoulds and ought-tos.

I’m going to dare to be truly naked in the bathtub.

Maybe dare to drop my character more often, wherever I am.

Pain is not a punishment; pleasure is not a reward.
-Pema Chödron

I meditated this morning on impermanence. Specifically the impermanence of moods. Tension crept into my shoulders and neck again last night. Despite an half an hour on the shakti mat, I lay awake a good deal of the night feeling like there was a rubber band wrapped around my brain. My jaw. My shoulders.

And this morning is a deep pool of why bother. But I’ve stopped looking for clues, for catalysts, or causes. This will pass. I breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth three times – cleansing breaths. Then I peel a clementine. I rub the rind over my hands. I press my hands together, and to my lips. And I inhale again.

When Dix entered one of her melancholy seasons she went to England to rest with Quakers. They fed her fruit. I love the irony that these pious Christians turned to an orange, a peach, or… an apple for healing.

And quiet. They turned to Quiet.

I have been making an ever-greater effort to stop multitasking. And ever-failing. Yesterday I caught myself searching for audio apps to read the news to me so I could work on the computer simultaneously. This after I’d acknowledged to myself how I’ve been listening to podcasts in a weirdly performative way (paratheatre) while thinking about other things entirely.

So much noise. I may have stumbled on a catalyst to my rubber band situation, I guess. But this pain is a consequence, not a punishment. I know that.

I’ve been collecting worries for 9 months mow. I fretted as though my doing so would make the world easier for other people. As though it were a useful thing to do with my time. Yesterday a student complained about the educational law in Norway that prevents me from giving them the last day before vacation off. She insisted on having the last word: But it sucks. There was no way she was going to allow me to end the conversation otherwise: But you have to agree it sucks, she repeated.

How often my students are mirror versions of my own little oxpeckers. How often my efforts to change the world are substitutes for what I need to change in myself. I try to soothe what needs soothing within myself. I fret vicariously. Uselessly.

Nature Picture Library Red-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) pair  searching for parasites on Impala, Mpumalanga, South Africa - Heini Wehrle

I think about Dix and all her work on behalf of the mentally ill – and all her own mental pain. Like her, I’m a well-intentioned master of self-deception. Too often ignorant of my own motivations for choosing the lauded – but ignorant perspective: choosing the other, while drowning myself.

Every year I hold this thought that I will really relish Christmas. I will make things with my hands, invest in the act of creating and giving as a token of interpersonal gratitude. Instead, I rush things between grading exams and making dinner, and I curse and resent the entire season. I resent the fact that last year’s handmade candies are still in a jar on the shelf in my colleague’s office, unopened – and likely brewing something far less helpful than penicillin.

I think about all the almond flour and lemon that wedged painfully under my fingernails while I rolled the candies into small coconut-flour-dusted shapes. (What a frightening thought now, in these Covid times).

Yeah.

This year I’m making candles. I expect hot soy wax will bring with it a share of painful moments. But I’m hoping the scent of cloves and orange will help me focus on a brighter mood.

Essence of orange tends to stick around. There’s nothing smooth about it. Like a burr or a bit of Velcro, it snags and insists on attention. Like a toddler tugging at a shirttail, demanding to be lifted up onto a hipbone and carried through the day, pointing and clapping at everything that sparks a little bit of joy. Clove? That’s the old woman doing the carrying, paying attention, smiling warmly: saying put down the red pen and the grading, and come here and just sit a while.

Take a deep breath.

Last night I watched a documentary about children with cancer. One of the things that struck me was the humor: the parents and siblings with their steady stream of comments that wouldn’t make sense in a transcript but conveyed such complex experiences- their purposeful weaving of lightness with darkness to make the experience more complex. To create meaning in every moment.

But another thing that struck me so many times was the gathering of families for birthday parties, for funerals: the blowing-out of candles, the hugging.

The touching.

I thought a lot about touching at the beginning of all this. But how quickly things become habitual. How quickly a culture can change. When a nurse on the tv screen reaches over to comfort another nurse with a hug: my body responds by tightening, “No!”

I wondered what this documentary would look like had it been filmed this past year. If the one doctor, with his arms tightly crossed over his chest while he talk to the family about end-of-life decisions would seem… unremarkable?


This week I have been thinking about how much I miss mentoring. I miss my job. Since March, my role has changed drastically. The physical distance has created a kind of objectivity and hands-off mentality that I get no pleasure from. I can count on one hand how many times I have been able to sit in a room with students and work on a scene – jumping up and down from the floor to interrupt, to find a new perspective, to coach: “Take it again, from your upstage cross” – when I’ve been able to see the learning process – or see that I need to come at it from another angle.

The conscious physical restraint has restrained me creatively.

It feels like I’m trying to teach a child to swim while sitting on the bleachers. I can’t explain why. Objectively, I don’t think much has changed in terms of my actual behavior. I wonder what one would observe comparing film clips of my work before and after the Corona restrictions. If I would seem “normal” now. In the classroom, in the conference room: now sitting across the table and down one seat to measure out a meter.

The students come into the room single file now, and we spray their hands with anti-bac. They leave the same way, and we mop the floor after every class. There’s no logical reason my relationships with the students should be different because of these little rituals. But they are different. I have a whole new understanding of what makes a “safe space” in a rehearsal room: where I am allowed to touch a finger lightly to a sternum and say: “Move from here,” reminding the student that the theater is where the imagination creates an alternative and shared reality through our physical presence. Our physical energy. Our physicalized intentions – whether or not they are followed through – whether or not they are played against.

Fear is a wild creature, that doesn’t respect boundaries or arguments. Fear is a great, gaping mouth that latches onto whatever it can to feed.

I try to get a student’s attention in the hallway. I lightly touch my finger to her down jacket and everyone’s heads whip around: shame.

In the rehearsal room, the students can touch one another. It has to do with the subject’s egenart, it’s specific nature. We’re still unsure whether instructors are allowed to touch the students. The logic evades us all.

A distraught student comes to me in tears. I find the appropriate telephone numbers, write the emails, help him make a plan to get through the next day or two. I reach out to touch his arm… isn’t this the specific nature of the moment?

My role?

Some habits are hard to break, and any acting teacher knows that playing against the impulse heightens the emotion of the moment.

Adds complexity – which seems to be the specific nature of human nature.

Empathy is not agreement. It’s about understanding.

Nashater Deu Soheim

The doctor confirmed what I suspected: tendinitis in both shoulders. Then he proceeded to explain what a tendon was, and how the shoulder joint was different from the wrist – as though I’d never heard the basics of anatomy, much less work as a movement instructor for a living.

I told him about the stress I’ve been under, about the daily Ashtanga and diagnosed shoulder impingement. He responded by reminding me of how old I am.

Now I’m trying to put my ego in check: it really is kind of him to take the time to explain to his patients how their bodies work. To remind them aging means to suck it up when it sucks.

I think it’s difficult not to err on one side or the other: to take in the forest as a whole or to see only each tree.

So why did I overreact? Why was I offended? What was it I wanted from him?

It certainly wasn’t a rudimentary anatomy lesson and an explanation for how to google for shoulder exercises for old people.


There’s an eye exercise where you focus on a glass pane, then focus on what is behind it alternately. It’s difficult. It makes my eyes ache afterward.

I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of days now, actually. As a metaphor – how it relates to social media, and social bubbles. How it relates to families and congregations and high school cliques, and trying to loosen the bonds without aiming to break them.

How it relates to all social relationships, really. These knotty, woven messes of damage and repair.

The U.S. election results surprised me and I found myself reading a wider range of news sites for a couple of weeks. I found myself reading my Facebook feed from a slightly different perspective.

And I deactivated my account.

Since then I’ve noticed some strange habits that I was completely unaware of – like an urge to share an article before I’ve read it to the end. Like failing to take the time to take a step back from the moment I recognize a shared belief in order to question the validity of that belief – which is something I’ve always thought reading helped me do.

But I see that my social media habit has become an activity where I sort people and products and cement my feelings of belonging: my identity. Not only have I abandoned contemplation for “interaction”, I’ve moved away from a practice of empathy by narrowing my field of vision as to make it virtually unnecessary.

Pun intended.

I began asking myself if I were reading (read: skimming) articles to pass them along as a performative act, rather than out of genuine intellectual curiosity. It’s an uncomfortable question to sit with.


Last week one of my students asked if we could continue the “debate” we’d been having the week before. I was taken aback. I thought we’d been having a discussion. In my mind, if not per definition, people win or lose debates. People listen with the goal of finding points of attack, to counter and dominate.

This lead me to try to initiate a discussion about critical thinking, which is at the heart of our national curriculum. I told them about a recent podcast I heard where researchers talk about how people who learned critical thinking skills almost always applied them first as weapons, rather than applying them to personal reflection. I pointed out that is not what we want to teach.

Then I remembered a book I bought at a conference over a decade ago: Peace Journalism. Now sold out and out of print. The gist of the book was to encourage journalists not to use war terminology and violent language in their headlines: “Obama attacks […]”, “Obama takes jab at […]”. These were headlines from this week. A google search (replace Obama with another name) will help you sort a publisher’s political leanings quickly.

I’ve been asking myself how I frame my thoughts. Which metaphors I’m using. Which expletives. Funny how the one we often use when we are angriest with another person, is a word that epitomizes intimacy.


They say we teach what we need most to learn ourselves, and sometimes I feel sorry for my students. I can’t be sure if I am seeing reflections of myself in their words, or whether I’m projecting my more unhelpful habits onto them. It’s probably a little of both, because that is what it is to be human, isn’t it?

The Buddhist teacher I read and listen to talks often about the need for spiritual seekers to be silent – to retreat from the world to focus on their spiritual growth. And this still makes no sense to me. Not within the context of my understanding of the world, of death, and of impermanence.

I believe empathy exists not as an idea, but as a practice. And every practice is in the moment, and within the context of only that moment.

I believe that it would be possible to gain an understanding – empathy – for the beetles and the shrubs of the earth, all by myself on a mountain top. And maybe that practice would lead to my being able to have an understanding of other people when I returned. But I think my ego – my mind -would do better to be surrounded by differing minds, differing opinions, differing moralities. And not silent, with a certainty of someone else’s meaning, but questioning. To discuss, not debate.

But what is the goal of understanding? Isn’t the point to embrace – to hold with care – each individual tree, and the entire forest?

As hard as that is. As painful.


Pain-killers. That’s what I wanted from the doctor.
And that’s what I didn’t get.

Damn. (Yeah, no. That’s not nice, or solution-oriented.)

Wine.

Some injuries don’t show up on MRIs. Those deep wounds that sever psychological/emotional muscles – like torn tendons. And the only thing to do is leave it alone. Give it time. Get on with life, but move with more caution for a while.

Sometimes I think working so closely with teenagers creates a kind of repetitive injury. All the hurt that your heart tries to absorb causes an inflammatory response that never quite has time to heal.

It’s like dancing under a window ledge with a mattress, worried that you are encouraging the worst possible scenario, but afraid to walk away from something acute and so very, very real.

I know that is a lot of metaphor.

We go on. I don’t know how sometimes.

For a living, I listen eight hours a day to the voices

of the anxious and the sad. I watch their beautiful faces

for some sign that life is more than disaster–

it is always there, the spirit behind the suffering,

the small light that gathers the soul and holds it

beyond the sacrifices of the body. Necessary light.

I bend toward it and blow gently.

– Patricia Fargnoli. From “The Roofmen”.

From her book Necessary Light.

After so many years, this remains one of my favorite poems. And Patricia, one of the people I most admire. Oh, all the hurt in the world. They are special people who can spend their entire days tending to it without breaking or solidifying under the weight of it.


I ran alone this morning, my knee complaining just a little – just enough for me to wrap it for yoga practice afterward. I am learning to pay attention to the warning signals before it turns into full-blown runner’s knee again. That is a kind of progress in regard to the inevitable wearing of my body.

It is all about listening, and adjusting … and continuing.

Last night I had a cramp in the same leg. Alarm bells went off and I wondered if I should go get a d-dimer test. E. laughed, and hugged me. And apologized for laughing. I googled “stress and leg cramps”, and “stress and blood clots”.

I took an aspirin and went to bed.

Trust is such a difficult thing. Losing trust in someone is one thing – maybe worse is knowing someone has lost trust in you.

And it is just weird meta-sh*t when the person you lose trust in is yourself.

or… Why I am still uncomfortable calling myself a Buddhist.

The past two mornings I’ve been hearing a nearby dog whine. Another bark. I haven’t been able to figure out where exactly it’s coming from. I’m wondering if the neighbor got a new dog who’s frightened to be alone during the day.

I went outside, but still can’t be sure where it’s coming from. The sound bounces around these houses so much when the air is this clear. It seems to be coming from everywhere at once.

Howling now. But Leonard is unperturbed. I figure he speaks dog language better than I do, so maybe it’s nothing to worry about. People, too, can bitch at the drop of a dime with little cause.

Storms in teacups and all that.

For some time now I’ve been listening to one teacher’s dharma talks. I like them because he refrains from homilies, and seems to favor consideration over dogma. He gives his interpretation of what is thought to be the words of Gautama Buddha, and often reminds the listener to ask themselves how it rings – or doesn’t ring – as true in one’s own life.

Yesterday in a talk, he interpreted a passage regarding the division between spiritual life and family life. For the first time I found myself disagreeing so strongly I began to question the foundation of the eight-fold path. I’m usually fine with contradictions in metaphors. I don’t think we are ever in a position to see the entire elephant, and that actually – a perfect metaphor that feels true from every perspective, would no longer be a metaphor and would become a kind of false dogma.

But here, the teacher pointed out that in order for one to “truly” follow a spiritual path one must leave one’s family. He said that if you chose family life you would be “behind” on your spiritual path and you would not actually be following the eight fold path.

There are times when I feel the crone in me rise in her mature glory. This was one of those times.

I once heard another Western teacher talk about how one of his gurus was cruel with him often – sarcastic and insulting. And this teacher explain that this was a good thing: the guru was teaching him in this way. My first thought even then was, yes, I suppose if you are a monk with no family (no siblings, no children, no acerbic aunts or creepy uncles), you might need someone to treat you poorly so you can learn to deal with it. Who needs family if you have a guru who makes you feel like sh*t?

When I read that the Dalai Lama has an acolyte sleep on the floor in his room in case he is thirsty in the night, I nearly wept. In his book An Open Heart he explains how much a devoted layperson should meditate each day. I was in my 40s then with two kids and a full-time job. Even with the privilege of having a responsible husband, it would have been nearly impossible for me to fit so many hours on a meditation cushion.

What about the single parents with multiple jobs? Because I don’t believe in reincarnation or a caste system, I reject entirely the notion that anything that is not a valid choice for everyone can be a tenable ethical- or spiritual imperative. I believe that to accept these ideas is egotistic, and at odds with the understanding that the self is an illusion.

The idea of “My spiritual path” seems at odds entirely with skillful intention. To relieve my suffering by avoiding what makes people suffer, is not skillful living. It’s avoidance.

This is the crone in me whose earned-wisdom will not be dismissed by people who do not have to sit in meeting rooms with colleagues, or negotiate bedtimes with children.

There are many paths and many teachers. And it’s not a friggin’ race anyway.

(Yeah, avoiding harsh words isn’t exactly my strong suit – being a teacher lets me work on that way every day.)


“Haaaaaa”: allowing that storm to settle. It’s a bit like reading tea leaves in the aftermath.

“A little resistance ensures a lot of progress.” – Richard writes to me. He suggests that I dig holes with straight lines, sharp corners – so the roots don’t curve in on themselves.


So much has happened since you wrote to me. There are little fires burning everywhere. I don’t think any of us were made to take in all this hurt. I feel the edge of apathy tempting me like a daemon hovering off the edge of a cliff, while beasts and bleeding bodies are rushing toward me in a nightmare. Well, not toward me, but toward us all. I am coincidental.

Are all individuals coincidental?

What can I do but sit on the ground where I am, and breathe? I am irrelevant in the bigger picture of things. And yet integral to all of it.

I am not on the front lines of anything, as you say. I’m not tending to the ill, not protesting in the streets of my homeland. I don’t speak for the suffering, or the dead.

There has to be a way to accept the fact of one’s own helplessness- or uselessness -and not give into likegyldighet. I’m drawn toward the word in my second language because the unfamiliarity seems to put the word’s meaning in relief. The literal translation of the word: the same-validity. Two equally legitimate realities. Facts. It is not a matter of “alternate facts”, but conflicting facts. True phenomenon that coexist necessarily in a state of conflict.

Facts. Disconnected from desires. Desires are interpretations, and there is nothing solid about them.

The fact is we are human. The fact is humans desire. The fact is little good comes from automatic writing.

You are on a font line, Richard. Your day job. It is tending to the vulnerable. It is working towards a kind of justice.


Justice.

I think the chimp studies suggest our craving for justice is an instinct, not a dogma. And I believe have a conflicting instinct to arrange ourselves in hierarchies. But I think those hierarchies should shift continually to be healthy. In class, we use a talking stick. (And I cringe because I know it is appropriated from indigenous people – but renaming it would then still be appropriation, right? And it is a brilliant tool.) Are you familiar with it? The idea is that everyone is heard and that everyone understands they have a voice, and they learn when to use it – and when not to. I’ve learned myself as a teacher that it is often hard to be silent and defer to more relevant voices: to learn to give up wanting control for the sake of control. I’m learning it as a partner in my marriage. And as a parent.

How does a whole culture borne from an arbitrary and brutal division between the privileged and the exploited change? Has any culture ever transitioned into a just society? Or do we simply break down and rearrange the oppression? Last year I kept cutting off my co-teacher when he talked about the “Greeks”. I kept qualifying: free, land-owning men in Greece.

I am still learning about the necessary qualifying when it comes to the facts of my own country of origin: “…The Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave“.

Today I hear this as the truth: The Free and The Brave are and have been two separate populations.

Ah, Democracy.

I used to think that wisdom was knowing the answers. Maybe it is. Maybe wisdom is knowing there are no perfect answers and that suffering is the only truth. Maybe it is why so often I wish I had my childhood faith back – to hand it all over to someone else – all of the responsibility.

But for now, I will sit where I am and breathe. And listen.

I apologize, because I feel that I am talking at you, not with you now.

I am feeling helpless.

Home now from two days in hospital. Once again, my body is out of my control: a mystery. They’ve looked inside my chest, inside my tender throat, under my skull. I’m healthy. My brain is apparently unscarred. So nothing explains my loss for words earlier this week. Unlikely a stroke, but I will be on blood thinners again for another year. I nearly laughed out loud when the neuroligist told me – the irony of my blood being so thick, and my family ties so weak. It’s almost as though my mind/body is desperate to compensate for a lack of kin.

At least it makes for a rich metaphor.

“Acceptance is not indifference. Breathe,” I tell myself. I read your letter and think that “You and E. and M. and I” sounds like a song, or a chant. The kind of sounds that roll through my mind on runs or long walks. It is sound of a small circle of awareness that allows for a kind of peace. It is difficult sometimes to find that in-between circle in this time of social distancing. We are pushed to the edges of our little selves or the great big world, with no middle path.

Soon enough we’ll be able allowed to move through the world without face masks. To smile at strangers. Tomorrow I’m going to order a bottle of Mount Eden Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ll stash it in the basement until you get here – or we get there. And we’ll all four sit together in the garden. We’ll leave the talking stick in the living room a while.

You can talk about cricket, though. You’ll have been back at it by then, and cricket-talk seems appropriate for an evening in the garden.

Much love.
Ren