Dance to Listen Better – What I Learned in Cuba

The following post recounts an experience I had during my first of many trips to Cuba from 1999 – 2012.
Dancing Man in Havana“Quiero una cerveza,” I tell the bartender

“Crystal o Bucanero?” he asks.

The two main beers of Cuba, one on the lighter side, the other, slightly more dark. Dame una Crystal,” I say with the pleasure that comes from being able to make a choice uncomplicated by having too many options.

Pouring the beer into a half-chilled glass, I suck it down. It’s a hot day in Havana. Just then an older gentleman approaches from a nearby table. Quieres bailar?” he asks with subdued confidence.

“Gracias, pero no hay musica,” I tell him, looking around the bar then back at him for agreement.

“No importa. Venga,” the gentleman replies, his right arm reaching out towards me.

Josef is a tall slender man, who looks part African and part Asian. He has strong lines on either side of his mouth that deepen when he grins revealing yellow-stained front teeth rimmed with gold. Despite this and the slight reek of cigar smoke, he’s enchanting. “Bueno,” I nod in acceptance.

He takes my hand and escorts me to a spot several feet from the bar then gestures for me to stand beside him. “Mirame, mira mis pies” Josef says, pointing both fingers at my eyes, then back to his feet. Standing with his feet ten inches apart, he leans forward just enough for his arms to dangle free before him. He takes one step to his right then brings his foot back to its original position. Then he takes one step to his left and brings it back.

This is easy – I got this, I think. “Four steps…that’s it?” I say.

I bend my knees and step right, then back to center, left, then back to center, just like he showed me. After a few more attempts, I speed up, making me believe that I’m doing well. Turning back to Josef, in anticipation of his praise, his expression tells me otherwise. Scratching the back of his head with a perplexed look on his face, he taps his chest and tells me I have to listen to the rhythm from inside. Marking each step slowly, he claps out the rhythm, “Uno, dos….(y)…tres-cuatro-cinco; Uno, dos….(y)…tres-cuatro-cinco.”

I recognize it immediately from my Cuban dance class. It’s a rhythm of the clave – two smooth wooden sticks that when played together provide the foundational pattern for Afro-Cuban music.

Closing my eyes, I try to focus on his voice and the rhythm. Clap, clap, (pause) clap-clap- clap. How am I supposed to keep my belly relaxed and my knees bent at the same time? And my feet, it’s as if they have their own brain. (Now I know how men feel about that other body part of theirs.) This should be easy for me, but it’s not. It feels foreign. And what’s up with this should in my mind? No doubt it’s from my identity as a dancer. A dancer with twenty years of experience! But who cares about all that experience if in this moment, I can’t even follow a simple step.

I wish I could do the step the way Joseph’s doing it – on the beat and with total commitment.

Focus. Relax. Listen. I tell myself. Keep it simple. Breath. Move from the breath in sync with the rhythm. That’s the only task.

I look over at Josef, who looks back at me, bending his knees even more, as if to challenge me to do the same.

I focus on my feet; right, then back to the original position, then left, and then back to center. Breath, focus, sink into the rhythm. For a moment my hips, torso and shoulders seem to move in concert and with the least amount of effort.

Lowering myself even closer to the floor to match Josef, my thighs begin to hurt and my legs shake. I look down, lose focus and almost fall over myself. Josef’s elegant and precise movements are beyond reach for now. Our wordless dialogue continues for a moment before I have to stop and rest. Catching my breath, I ask him, “Que hace a un buen bailador?

With a glint of mischief in his eyes, he says, “Tienes que escuchar a Dios,”

 

Note: While the man in this photo is not the actual Josef I danced with (unfortunately, I took no photo), this gentlemen exudes Josef’s joy and warmth.

Hate Starts Small Which is the Best Time to Catch It

A Typical Day

It’s 2 in the afternoon on a Sunday when I see Mei-Lian, my landlady’s Gardner, squatting beside the bushes outside my apartment. A quiet 60-something woman from Mainland China, she greets me with a warm, “hay-wo.” She’s holding a pair of long arm plant clippers in one hand and fresh plant cuttings in the other. Over the years, I’ve noticed that she’ll prune a plant that’s not overgrown but ignore the one beside it with dead leaves. I glance at the blooming Bougainvillea just to her right and feel a slight shiver run up my spine. The thought crosses my mind that it could be the next victim of Mei-Lian’s hit-and-miss pruning approach.

I moved into my current apartment from the unit below, despite it being smaller and more expensive, in part because of the view of this Bougainvillea. I loved how its cinnamon-magenta flowers fill the left side of the window, blocking my view of the Hollywood Squares-like apartment complex across the street.

“Hello,” I say back to Mei-Lian with a slightly forced smile. Normally, I’m happy to see her but the thought of my Bougainvillea getting over-pruned triggers a kind of rigidity inside me. I go inside my apartment and pour a glass of chilled green tea, hoping my mood will do the same – chill. But for good measure, decide to cDSC_4811.JPGall my landlord to check that he remembers our agreement that the Bougainvillea not be cut down. Minutes later, after a short but pleasant conversation with him, I’m assured by him our agreement still stands. Relieved, I go take a nap.

Interrupted

Thirty minutes later a buz saw wakes me up with a jolt.  It can’t be…I think to myself, rushing outside in a surreal combination of post-nap daze and hyper-alertness.

“What are you doing!!?” I yell, “This bush doesn’t need pruning!!”

Mei-Lian, standing at the top of her ladder, moving the saw through the Bougainvillea from left to right, turns it off to answer me. Smiling she says, “is k, is k…bett now.”

Enraged and a bit nauseas, I can taste the bitterness of adrenaline. “What are you doing!!!!???,” I repeat, in the vain hope that words, if conveyed with intensity, can be as effective as actual physical action to stop her in her tracks.

But it’s no use. With a nervous laugh, she turns on the saw and finishes the job until the once blooming beauty is reduced to a woody nub.

I walk away, feeling betrayed and disrespected. How could this happen? I had an agreement? I went back to my apartment, dropped onto my couch and sobbed, feeling unheard, disrespected and powerless to protect something I cherished. I thought bad things. Hurtful things. I knew that Mei-Lian was not malicious, and that there may well have been a miscommunication between her and the landlord. (In fact, this turned out to be the case).

In thinking about it a short time later, I don’t know what was more painful, not having control to stop someone from doing something that was hurtful, or feeling rage toward a peaceful and gentle person.

Her action, whether wrong or right, brought out the worst in me. I got a taste of the animal within. I think this is what was MOST painful, that the thing that enraged me, Mei-Lian’s unwillingness to stop an action that was causing distress, was the very thing that I did toward her in response.

During our interaction and moments afterward, I continued a verbal assault on Mei-Lian in my mind. At one point, even referring to her as “those kind of people don’t care…”

Thinking further, I realized that by framing our interaction in terms of them/us I felt better about myself.

What an ugly and important thing to see in myself, how easy and convenient it is to  objectify another person so I can feel better. Not a great moment for me, but actually a really useful moment to remember.

Slippery Slope to Intolerance

Isn’t this a kind of slippery slope from indifference to intolerance that can lead to hate and even hurtful action. Slippery because the smallness of it makes it so subtle, as to tell oneself – I’m only human, I have the right to be upset…blah, blah, blah.  And there’s truth to that, a lot of truth. I am only human – we are all only human. Feeling emotions is are part of being human.

It’s what happens after that, the story we tell ourselves and hold on to over time that’s the tricky part. The slippery part.

Have you ever noticed that it’s often victims who speak up against injustice – as they should. But the voice that’s often missing is that of the bully accepting responsibility.

Would that change, I wonder, if more of us saw our part early on?

Time Heals All Wounds If…

They say time heals all wounds. Maybe so. But I think in order for that to happen, we have to be diligent to try and see our part BEFORE and INSTEAD of blaming others. We have to take care to not hold on to the boxes we put others in. It’s our choice whether or not we keep them there in our mind and hearts.

As of today, the Bougainvillea has completely grown back. But as for my pride, I’m working to keep it pruned, not to a woody nub, but not overgrown.

The Power of Presence

 

This video caught my attention because I was curious about the person behind the Mr. Rogers of my childhood memory.

I was irritated at first at Mr. Rogers’ slow pace – I went immediately to judgement, thinking, here we go he’s going to talk the same way he does in his children’s show? I’ll never get through this!

But in just a few minutes of listening to him speak something changed. I found that the more I focused my attention on listening, the more I heard both the words as well as the energy surrounding the words. I heard more, something beyond, or before words. Also, in slowing down to listen, I slowed down. Tension that I wasn’t even aware of, lessened. A different, energy replaced it, helping me not just hear what he was saying, but encounter something calmer inside.

It seems that something shifted for Senator Pastore, the person Mr. Rogers is addressing in the video, as well. The power of presence. What is this quality of presence that inspires us to not just hear but to listen?

An Epic Dream

There are many types of dreams, Healing dreams, Recurring dreams, Lucid dreams, Nightmares, etc. One type of dream that’s less common, at least in my 50 years of living and sleeping are Epic dreams.

Epic dreams, sometimes referred to as Great or Numinous dreams are vivid and compelling, so much so, detail can be remembered for decades. They’re rich with archetypal symbolism and leave the dreamer feeling that she’s discovered something precious and rare upon awakening.

I’ve had one epic dream so far in my life. It was in November of 1993, I was in graduate school at the time.

I was in a huge, empty house with many rooms. I was compelled to walk through the house until I reached the last room. With my nose against the wall, I realized that I could go no further. There was a long moment in which I decided that I could move through the wall. To do this I intentionally expanded awareness to the level of my cells. As I did so two things happened: I saw and felt space between my cells and I moved through the wall.

Change

When I woke, the experience shocked me – I’d never before been so acutely aware of myself as a `process of becoming,’ as such. That is, it seemed that the only way to actually move through the wall was to focus attention on both my thinking self and my doing self. Another way to describe this is that to move through matter I had to embody a quality of being simultaneously aware of it self as the observer and observed. I had the strong impression that if I were to identify with one or the other, I’d lose a certain dynamic quality and become inert, making it impossible to move through the wall.

Even more bewildering was the fact that I could not draw upon Cartesian reasoning to further elucidate how change occurred to result in me moving through the wall. That is, if a person changes – both in state and position – how does one explain the occurrence without presupposing a division between Observer and Observed or subject and object? I could not presuppose this division because was not how I experienced it, which would be, ironically, unscientific.

The dream reminded me of encounters I’d had as a dance therapist, an artist, a friend – listening deeply to another or oneself…a kind of somatic experience of inner space.

In this state, it seemed to me that change occurred as the result of a certain quality of attention. I reasoned that if there were a way to understand the nature of change of this quality of attention, then perhaps it could be more accessible…more possible.

I wrote my Masters Thesis starting with the question, How to think about how change happens without assuming originating separate parts? I proposed concepts from David Bohm’s philosophical interpretation of Quantum Mechanics along with concepts from Somatic Epistemology to derive a non-dualistic framework for thinking about non-causal change. That was in 1997.

Why I Love Oakland

 

Lake MerrittI LOVE Oakland.

It’s not about the Warriors win this past year. Though that’s super wonderful.

It’s not about the recent hipster’ness of this town and it’s (long overdue) overnight popularity.

It’s not because it’s the abused and so-called ugly step sister of the San Francisco.

It’s because when I take my dog out for a walk, I’m asked by a small group of women sitting by the Lake about my opinion on race relations. Specifically, how do I feel when I’m approached by a group of blacks. It’s worth noting that the group asking me this is an inquiring group of African American women.

We had a rich dialogue that I think was good for all involved. I learned something, the woman who initiated the conversation learned something, etc.

That we can have this quality of dialogue between strangers on a topic that is historically and to date, emotionally charged, (rightfully so), is the real gift. The opportunity hidden in the everyday.

THIS is what makes me stay in this country – free speech and it’s potential for quality dialogue. I’m grateful for the leaders who had the foresight to create a structure that could, however imperfectly, create the conditions for encounters of the sort I experienced today.

There is SO much more than consumerism (and being a consumer) possible in this amazing country.

(note: Original post was in Facebook earlier in the year, 2015)

The Value of Insecurity

Does it ever go away, the insecurity that lives in my skin ever since I was a girl.

I’m walking to meet a friend and have to go along the lake which takes me past a large group of people salsa dancing. Just seeing this group makes me anxious (a bit of context soon to follow). I want to walk in the opposite direction, but I can’t. I have to get to my friends house.

So my challenge is how to pass without appearing desperately insecure.

That’s a sucky goal indeed.

As I approach I work to separate individuals from the crowd in the hopes that this focus will shift my fear-soaked thinking into an objective mindset, free of ego emotion.

No chance…the fear is already in place.

And yet, another part of me is watching my thought process and emotions, tawakehe salsa crowd, the individuals there, and my interaction with it all.

The few folks I identify are people I’m insecure around for different reasons. One, a fellow dancer I’ve seen in class over the years who, despite several attempts at having a conversation, seems completely indifferent to me. Another, a photographer who produces stunning travel photos, but who has a habit of dropping his attention mid-conversation the second someone more interesting/beautiful/popular strolls by. Then there’s the dance instructor, an exemplar of talent and beauty, but not much for taking even a minute to get to know you beyond sound bite sentences.

I’m not paranoid, but I am critical. Sometimes, I just get fed up with pretension. Not just in others, but in myself. Especially myself.

Why is it hard to walk past this crowd in a way that’s authentic to how I’m feeling? What compels me to appear indifferent?

It’s fear of rejection, no doubt. But if I’ve already been rejected or believe that I’ve been rejected by this group, so why do I still give it power to the point of becoming pretentious myself? Why doesn’t the knowing of this, in and of itself, loosen its grip on my behaviour?Sigh…

I make myself stop and say “hi” to the photographer guy. We start a conversation, until the dance teacher approaches, at which point photo guy shifts his focus toward the dance teacher. I stand for a minute feeling like the proverbial third wheel, trying to distinguish my fears and projectins from reality. After a couple of minutes, I realize I’ll be late for my friend’s house and use that as my cue to exit.

Leaving the salsa crowd, I feel different than before; calmer, but every bit as insecure as the moments before. I don’t know if it’s confidence, but it’s good. Something between insecurity and confidence. Something human.

 

(note: This post refers to an experience I had a few years ago. I chose to post it now however, because it’s still a part of my behavior that challenges me in some situations.)