Tag Archives: inspiration

On: Tenderness

Dignity

What was it that Otis Redding said? Oh yes.

Try a little tenderness.

Tenderness.

Why is it so challenging to bask in the love that we all desire? I believe that it is everyone’s intention to surround themselves with the softness of life. By that I don’t mean the softness of material things, the silks and satins and cashmere of life. I mean the softness that comes with peace of being… Soft. Tenderness.

It’s a quiet summer afternoon. I’m looking out the window and watching butterflies circle the backyard. They seem completely at ease. Is it because, amazingly, the black cat with the strange green eyes is at ease? Is she practicing cat tenderness?  She doesn’t move from her perch as the butterflies and birds flit around her. Only the gray squirrel raises a racket. There is no threat. Softness abounds.

Sunlight fills crevices like liquid. My soul is filled with tenderness. And I, who thrive on seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, want to believe that every human being loves the sun.

The poets, romantics, musicians, spiritual teachers — even scientists — testify to the healing power of tenderness. Go ahead, say it isn’t so. But you’ll find yourself in some very isolated company.

I’m reminded of mornings on my grandparents’ farms. Both maternal and paternal grandparents knew the power of tenderness and peace. My own memories allow me to understand why my mother, in her dementia, retreats to a place of softness and safety.

Not too long ago, I was asked by a health practitioner to remember what that tenderness feels like in my body. I was happy to revisit that glorious childhood experience. Vacations were watercolor mornings, filled with strolls amid the corn, watermelon, and tomato fields with paternal and maternal grandfathers. For me, our small farms and communities played in my mind as barricades against treacherous white men whose daily bread filled them with the hatred required to circle the south looking for unarmed black men and boys.

“Remember what that tenderness felt like,” they say. It’s because currently my life requires the wondrous gift of tenderness: regular rest, naps, real food and more proteins (did I tell you I now eat poultry as well as fish? Gone, gone are those days of self-righteous food Puritanism!) I eat vigilantly, and monitor my emotions. “Get eight hours sleep,” said my dear physiatrist Dr. J.

For 40 years when I thought of South Carolina away from my grandparents’ homes, I thought of a place contaminated with murder and the blood and bones of enslaved black people. With my maternal grandparents gone, their home and land sold, and my estrangement from the conservative religious views of the South, there was no reason to return to that place. History suffocated tenderness.

Then I attended a family reunion in Myrtle Beach and the feelings flooded back. The signs on stores, restaurants, and bathrooms and drinking fountains — “colored” and “white, ” placed there to kill the human spirit while threatening the physical body — were gone.

Those signs had pitted my tender heart against my gentle maternal grandfather. When I was about 10 years old, he took us into the city of Sumter to run errands and buy sweets. As if in slow motion, I found myself bowing my head to drink from a fountain clearly marked “white only.” My grandfather did what he had to do to protect me.

He grabbed me by the collar with such force I thought I would choke. My lips never touched the water. Later on, sitting on the porch in his arms, surrounded by the night songs of frogs and crickets in a dark so black you could not see the outline of trees, and the smell of the forest so sweet I wanted to wrap it around my skin, I came to understand three things:

the incredible love and tenderness in the heart of the man forced to take such action;  the incredible love and tenderness in the heart of the man saddened by his own action and; the incredible love and tenderness in my own heart that allowed me to keep loving him.

Tenderness in its myriad forms — family, church, and community — ensured our survival. Tenderness has contributed, in spite of the traumas of living, to the person that I am.

It is a tender summer day and I wonder: If every person, politicians especially, accessed a single memory of tenderness, would the world be a very different place? I, who thrive on seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, would like to think it so.

On Being Stardust – a.k.a. Science Confirms What God Knew All the Time.

I LOVE it when science and God kiss.

Merry Christmas.

Happy Kwanza.

Happy New Year.

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jlw-Y4WhEg

On… The sweetness of a name

This blog is quivery and yellow–  like pineapple Jell-O.  It shimmies and shakes as I struggle through what has become an extraordinary array of challenges.

From carpal tunnel to feet that require the use of a cane or walker, I have been traveling the road to patience and health. It hasn’t been easy, but I have the support of friends and a basically happy outlook. I am also inclined to whine a bit.

With that said, I recognize the need to keep jabbering away. Silence is not acceptable for a blog. This week in particular was an ecstatic one for me as my choice for the American presidency won the race. I am thrilled that President Obama won his second term. And now, we can get to work, the real work, of equal opportunity for all.

Now for this week’s word: names.

I, for one, am intimately connected with the experience of names, having spent years accepting or rejecting several of my own. I was my father’s firstborn, and as such, my birth name reflected his joy and prayers. My birth name meant “gracious gift of God,” and both the name and its meaning lifted me up in good and trying times. I never abandoned the name — not really. Its meaning allowed me to, at least inside my head, recognize myself as a beloved daughter of God, a belief that has revealed itself to me in good times and been hidden away in times of stress or fear.

Given that, in so many cultures, the child’s name describes a dominant personality trait, and with cousins that had nicknames like Cunning or Bossy, I figured I lucked out.

Still, over the years, I have tried on new names like a judge at a dessert tasting contest. How I started the journey is unclear, but there was this point in my development where I felt that my name was restrictive, a sentence to an impenetrable goody-two-shoes life. By the time I moved into a small apartment (and I mean small!) in San Francisco in 1969, I had decided to try out the name of Susan.

Right.

“Susan” was the name of business and surety and normalcy. But anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not a Susan, and that shirt would not fit. So, I abandoned Susan when I returned to the East Coast, started working in theater, and eventually met a troop of African-American actors where we all took African names. The name Sala came out of that experience. My father said “you will always be what I named you.” This was significant because there were times when I felt he did not like me. But his statement said that, to him, I would always be a gracious gift of God.

What was I looking for? What identity did I feel was missing? In India, I asked a meditation master to give me a new name. She told me to keep my own name. This began the inner work of trying to know who I am beyond the labels I use to describe myself: a woman, African-American, creative. I was the pound cake waiting to be drenched in the liquid lemony frosting of my own nature. After several years, I received a name from the meditation master. And, in the end, I discovered that all the names I lived with had essentially the same meaning. And the river of God ran through every single one of them.

Sala meant gentle or peace. Gloria Jean, my birth name, meant gracious gift of God, and the blessing I received from my teacher was the name of Gopi, which meant that I was to be a lover of God in all his forms. I had been bathed in the lemony frosting of my nature for my whole life, but couldn’t taste its sweetness.

Finally, I am enjoying the taste of my own nature. There’s more to come.  Yum.

On Autumnal abundance

Autumn is here with its chilly, damp fingers. It comes with a mixture of memories, some good, some bad, and some with rarely a charge at all. It’s raining, and temperatures have dropped, but the reflections I experience are as satisfying and filling as a bowl of hot carrot-ginger soup. Oh, the feelings that autumn colors bring!

I once worked with a frail young woman who feared autumn. She physically trembled as she talked of how the fall reminded her of death. I listened to her speak and watched her for a few moments before I told her my view. Autumn is a reminder of the abundance of life. And yet, I can see her point of view because earthly things come with earthly fears.

Autumn, for me, is a reminder of things that cannot be taken away; kind of like the theme from the Titanic: the things in our hearts always go on.

So what are the things that can’t be taken away? I have some ideas (surprised?).

Spiritual strength. Ah, the goal. Learning to become a spiritual warrior. It’s oh so not the sinkhole of zealotry and dogmatism. Spiritual warriors drive thriving. Where does the mistake take place? How do our honest journeys become paths divested of purity?

At a party, I once pulled a fortune from a jar that contained the word “Coromantee.” I decided to look it up recently because the word on the fortune was combined with the word “warrior.”  I have since learned that the Coromantees from Ghana were warrior tribespeople sold into slavery. They did not go gently.  They were so fierce that it is said an Act was proposed to try to prevent slave traders from shipping them to the West. I’ve  held that word in my heart for many years as my marching orders. Spiritual warriors cannot be enslaved; one will never control a spiritual warrior’s mind.

This morning, I’m also thinking about Victor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Once one becomes a spiritual warrior, there is no one — and this is an absolute, NO one — who can take that strength away.

The first taste of sweet potato pie. Whether or not you believe it, this is one of those luscious memories that can never be taken away. And although I’ve tried to replicate that pie in so many vegan ways, I have not found anything to replace that first taste. Sunday after church, after the roast beef, after the collard greens, after the rice, is pie. Not bean. Not pumpkin. Smooth, rich sweet potato.

Education. Complain as bitterly as we might about the loans, the two or three jobs, the exhaustion that comes with writing papers at 3 AM; there is nothing that beats the joy, pride, and security of knowing that no one can take away what we’ve earned and learned. Ever.

Love and our relationship to the Divine. Embrace or deny it, we are wedded to the Great Mystery. Nope. Can’t be taken away.

One’s relationship to one’s ancestors. Conscious or unconscious, acknowledged or not, we owe a debt to those who came before us.

Autumn is a time when we remember abundance. And I could probably fill pages with other examples of abundance — none of which are monetary. I know. It’s boring to talk about leaves in shades of red and gold, of orange and yellow fruit and vegetables; of dark evenings at five o’clock. But it’s exactly this magic in nature that brings an awareness of abundance. As the rains soften the leaves so that they willingly drop from the trees, and as I watch the leaves fall, I am willing and happy to concede that abundance lies in things that cannot be taken away.

What about your autumnal abundance?

On kindness and coastal healing

So now it’s done. I’ve had the surgeries on both hands, and I’m tired. I go back and forth with the focus and energy it takes to heal. I’ve ranted and raved like Job: “What’s the lesson here? You say there’s a reason for all things. Can I have a clue?”

When I moved back to the East and to the Philadelphia area specifically, I felt I was doing the right thing. After all, New York is the publishing capital of the world, and my mother was ill. In 2001, all the right reasons seemed to be in place. I spent two years in an ashram in upstate New York surrounded by love.  But when I moved to the Philadelphia area in 2003, love was replaced by another four letter word — the worst of all four letter words — hate. I hated it here.

All of the reasons and memories of why I had fled the East Coast and anything remotely connected to it (including the southeast) came flooding back. I only saw the busyness and inflexibility of the culture. I did not feel the warmth in human spirit that seemed to flourish in the rains of the Northwest and the sun of California. Oh. And did I mention the cold and snow? I do not like cold and snow and could not imagine ever finding friends here.

I pegged everyone (especially you former manager from Hades), as a scavenger for money, sex, and devious ways to perpetuate racism, sexism, class prejudice and all the other prejudices one could think of.  I called a monk (priest) and cried. This place was a new low.

It takes time to heal. The severity of my carpal tunnel and the energy to deal with insurance and other issues threatens to take my full attention.  One of the most frustrating experiences has been the delay in posting to my blog as often as I would like. And I had other expectations: I’d be slicing carrots a couple of days after surgery, driving to Trader Joe’s, boiling pots of water for tea or veggies, and back at rehearsal. (I’m coming guys.) But the body has its own ideas.

It also takes time to heal old wounds, and I have plenty of emotional baggage when it comes to the eastern seaboard. But all these considerations have been offset in recent days by the old four letter word — love.

Love brought me home from surgery and stayed for four days cooking meals, washing dishes and sharing hours of conversation. Love referred me to resources that I need.

Love came by to chop the carrots, make the tea, drive me to appointments, and keep my apartment clean. Love stood next to me as I vomited pain medication and recovered from anesthesia. Love went shopping for me, and called me (with different voices) about 10 times a day. Love pulled me out of the apartment to go watch a school football game and sit in the sun rather than stay inside and feel sorry for myself. Love warmed my heart and healed a place that was becoming as chilly as the Pennsylvania winters.

Love, in the form of so many folks, surprised me and talked me through my fear. I didn’t have to do it alone, and that was one of the biggest fears I had when I moved to this place.

Great souls; great hearts. Grace has a way of reminding me that the kindness of others can melt a frozen heart, even here, where I thought no hearts remained. Perhaps that’s the lesson after all.

On devotion

It’s always tricky to attempt to write about something as lofty as devotion. Words of faith and truth and high ideals have an energy that, if not approached in just the right way, can backfire miserably. But I like to think that since this blog is basically experiential, not scholarly, I can attempt to express my take on any word or words.

On devotion. I remember praying to have the experience of devotion. I felt as though I had no commitment to anything or anyone. And I can tell you, that was a very low moment. I recognized that folks were devoted to their work, families,  communities, politics, and addictions. Where, I wondered, does my devotion lie?

Recently, a friend’s father died. I was reading the obituary, and the words were so powerful that I almost cried. He was 99, and the sentence that moved me stated “he is survived by his devoted wife of 70 years…” Seventy years!?!  Most of us can’t figure out how to be devoted to a candy bar for three minutes, let alone to a person for more than five. I can count on one hand the number of couples I know who’ve been devoted to each other for more than 20 years. Do we even know what devotion means anymore?

I was blessed to grow up with noteworthy examples of devotion: devotion to God and church; devotion to work; devotion to relationships; devotion to a better life. It was a challenging time in black history, and for some families even personal relationships were extremely rocky. But I saw something in them that the obituary triggered in my memory:  in that world, people didn’t change partners like socks because they were devoted to something–bigger. Devotion is linked to thriving. (So says me, but argue if you want to…)

About two years ago, I went to a couple of house blessings where a Brahmin priest was offering prayers of protection and prosperity for the families who lived in the homes. These were families who I would describe as very devoted to God. When I say devoted to God, I mean that kind of focus where a person feels that everything they do and everyone they meet is a result of the love of that Source – – whatever you want to call it.

Now, there were a couple of things about these blessings that caught my attention. The first was the respectful and loving way that the families welcomed the visiting priest and his wife. The second, and I remember being fixated by it,  was what I interpreted as the devotion of the priest’s wife to her husband while she assisted him in the ceremonies. I couldn’t stop watching her.

What was that look on her face? Now, there is one thing I know for sure–and I want to be clear about this. Devotion is not mental slavery. Devotion is not blind allegiance. Devotion is not accepting abuse or humiliation. Devotion is not swimming in self-hatred to idolize another.  Clear?  Okay.

Pure devotion — however off-the-mark we observe it to be — is linked to the heart. So, I’m back to my question. Where does my devotion lie?

I am devoted to nature. I’m devoted to blue skies, bright sun, and ocean breezes. I’m devoted to people who work the land and provide the food that allows me to offer meals to friends and family.

I am devoted to democracy.

I want to think that I’m devoted to prayer and God and the world that this great Source created.  Not too long ago, I met a woman who talked about her devotion to her spiritual path. Her path is different from mine. But when I looked at her face, I really got her love for her God. And I guess that’s the key. Devotion is linked to love. So says me; argue if you want to…

And that, my friends, is my word for today. Devotion.

Words On Art, Pizza, and a Joyful Life

People like to use the term “fire in the belly” to define that insatiable passion in pursuit of a dream.  I like to think of the term in its relationship to the pursuit of pure joy.

Artists are messengers of pure joy.  They inspire folks to view the world in radically different ways.  They encourage us to be curious and to take risks.   They encourage us to be joyful.  As in…”make a joyful noise unto the Lord..”  Not threatening.  Not fearful.  Joyful.

Even when an artist’s work is something I’m not particularly fond of, I find that I am turned away from that experience only to be propelled toward a more joyful one. For this reason alone, if I had a million or a billion or a trillion dollars, I would give it to artists.

I recently heard a story about how Erma Bombeck said she would greet God if she met him face to face after death.  The story goes (and I am paraphrasing here) that she imagined God asking her what she had brought back for Him.  She said she would tell Him she had nothing to give; that she had used every gift He had given her, and there was nothing in her pockets to return.

I could only sit in amazed silence.  To live like that, one must live joyfully.

The other day, my sister-in-law, nieces, a couple of other girls, and my cousins were over for a pizza making party.  The children are all talented girls, five to eleven years old and sassy with creativity.  Their interests are diverse.  One loves music, one loves to ice skate, and one–I’m betting on it–will be a famous television chef.

The girls immersed themselves in the project immediately, and my small kitchen crackled with joy as each girl rolled out her dough in her own way and used toppings to suit her imagination.  Every pie was a work of art.  I was inspired by their boldness and generosity.   They even made “take outs” for their siblings who were not there to cook with us.

There were no rules, just a lazy afternoon,  ingredients, and joy in the process.  I had done the prep work the day before.  I had made yeasted dough from scratch and filled bowls and containers with toppings that I thought they would enjoy.  To be honest, I had a pretty joyful experience prepping.  I home roasted and sliced red bell peppers, sliced and sautéed mushrooms, chopped roma tomatoes, and sliced black olives.  I diced pepperoni slices into quarter chunks and made a fruit salad.  As I washed and chopped  strawberries,  pears, and oranges, then sliced bananas and added  blueberries and raspberries, I was in the zone.  I could have purchased any number of the ingredients I used–the mushrooms, the roasted red peppers, and sliced olives–but I was painting my picture of children joyously making pizza from scratch.  I couldn’t have stopped prepping if I wanted to.  I was quite happy.

In 1968, I was in San Francisco for the first time.  It was a dynamic time, filled with the presence of flower children and the so-called love generation.  I remember being amazed that I could walk the entire city from one end to another in a day.  There was no BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), no subways.  It was quite a different city then.

One day while walking–and brooding on how difficult life was, a pastime I thought necessary if I wanted to live as an artist–a beautiful man came up to me.  He was African and so beautiful that I will never forget his face.  In those days, I had no suspicion of strangers.

“Why do you look so sad?”  he asked.

I was taken aback, but before I could open my mouth to respond, he was almost singing.  “You should be happy!  Be Happy!”   He patted me on the shoulder and cheerfully walked off.

It seems that this has been a spiritual theme–a command from the Universe, if you will–wherever I go.  Live joyfully. Empty the pockets. That’s the ticket I’m supposed to buy.

Creativity is mysterious medicine, generating in us the desire to live with a fire in the belly for joy.  We’re inspired by interpretations of life–stories, choreography, theater, music, photographs, paintings, and poetry — that reveal the stages and emotional paths bringing us to the joy that we yearn to experience.

Artists inspire us to get up and do something.  Dance something. Write something.  Sing something.  Cook something new and fabulous—maybe a pizza.

Yes indeed.  It is a very good Friday.