Message from Kimowan

Fill yourself
with the clear emptiness
of Cold Lake.

The negative space
carved into the breast
of earth, a place
that can hold
the impossibility of water.

This is the place
of one turtle’s death–
his upended shell shaping
a bowl,
the first container
of life:
that great turtle
upon which all things of the earth
ultimately rest.

Immerse yourself
in the cold,
still waters
which are as much like certainty
as we can feel.

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Where the world’s light
cannot be found,
you grow.
You thrive
in the darkness,
you have found a way.

Intimate, secretive,
with sudden loud colors
and tiny puffs
that become your children.

It is a beautiful thing
to come upon you
hidden, among a pantheon
of trees, lying close beside
those who have fallen—
those who, to other eyes,
would seem dead.

But through you
all who are dead
find another life.


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Online Dating

“I see you”
was the last thing you said
before I had to look away, to try to open
the door, awkwardly locked, so you must have
reached around me with your big sweet arms
and, one last time, encircled me
to no purpose.

Moments before, you had been staring
at my open, naked body
on your man’s bed,
and I had believed that before us lay
a landscape very much like that body,
which so many desire, and so few
are now ever permitted to touch.
A wild, generous land.
We, being Americans,
might imagine a place
where freedom is possible.

To find that place
indeed without water, nothing there
to nourish and sustain through time.
I have been traveling years, and still
my effort cannot find the edge
of this field.
I live where no one lives,
but for the old dog,
scraping through her last days.

The entire world
has become suddenly younger,
intentions and ideas flying
through a cold, vast interconnectedness,
which we must all now, suddenly, make
also a sort of home.

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A Lifetime of Gratitude: To Maya Angelou

The books just came into my life.  I have no idea how any of them got there.  But they were always there, my rows of books.  I kept them on the lowest shelf (an unsolvable mystery) and it was there I returned to, day after day, as one returns to her place at the dinner table.  And it was there I found the nourishment that food could not provide.

I was 12 years old when I pressed open the rainbowed paperback called “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”  I was white, upper middle class, and one of the happiest and most secure children who has ever had the chance to live.   There was no aspect of my life—apart from growing up in the South—that bore any resemblance to the life of the book’s author, Maya Angelou.  Yet, instantly, I recognized her.  The way she walked through the garden in the early morning with her brother, reciting lines from Poe.   The way she laughed in church.  The way she would think certain things just to make herself cry.

I wonder how many times I read it?   It feels like a hundred.  I had grown up, like all the Southern-born of my era, wholly engulfed in the invisible poison gas of our racial history.  It had only just become invisible;  my parents grew up under explicit segregation.  One of the (few) strong bonds that initially brought them together was their instinctive repudiation of that detestable institution.  Their disavowal of all forms of racism was a primary and formative feature of my upbringing.  They enrolled my brother and me in public schools where, many years, African-American women were our teachers, and kids of all colors shared the classroom.

But we were still surrounded by this poisonous gas—the memories of the hate, death,  and torture that had existed in the air around us for so many years before we breathed it all in.  The too-recent past stayed in the rooms we inhabited, worked, and played in.  As we got older, the races began to separate, as if they had always meant to.  I didn’t understand, but couldn’t seem to get out of the dense field of whiteness I was caught in.

From within this eerie forcefield of race that seemed to follow me and everybody everywhere, Maya Angelou’s voice reached me, like a perfectly pitched ball.  And I knew, I could feel, that she was aiming her voice right at me. She understood everything I didn’t know I didn’t understand.  And she, across that mysterious divide, had decided to speak to me.

The book was written the year I was born.  From the beginning, I interpreted this as a distinct sign that I was, in fact, specially connected to this book and this person in sacred and inexplicable ways.  She even lived in my hometown.  She taught at the same university as my father.   I looked and looked for her around town, but she never appeared in reality.  And all the while in my room, in my reading corner, less than 5 miles from her, she became to me more and more and more real.

I read her first four autobiographies compulsively.  I wanted to see things the way she did;  I wanted to be in her world, even with its unpredictability and pain.  I followed her as she walked through the dead Arkansas heat to the white-owned drygoods store.  I walked beside her as she perused the aisles, considering her purchase.  I loved best her clear, discerning mind, so often knowing exactly what she wanted and why.

I stood behind her as those nasty white salesgirls talked about her to her face.  “Is this that sassy Ruby Lee you was telling me about?”  one said to the other.  My imaginary self reached around her as she struggled to find words, and grabbed those women by their ugly dress collars, and yanked their faces close to mine.

“No, this is not Ruby Lee,”  I would say in a quiet but savage tone.  “THIS is Maya Angelou, a woman whose life will outshine yours by one million suns!”  And I would shake those hideous people, and then drop them like trash onto the floor of the drygoods store.  And I would link my arm in Maya’s, and together we would face the long and searing walk home.

I was willing to follow her anywhere, everywhere, because I understood her and I just knew she understood me.  Our relationship, bound in sacredness through the written word, was perfect.  She hadn’t even needed me in the drygoods store;  in that moment, decades before the Civil Rights Act, in a dusty country store in rural Arkansas, surrounded by the deepest white hostility, she had gathered her formidable strength and told those awful salesgirls to address her as “MISS Johnson.”  Alone.  She walked back home alone, where her beloved grandmother—for the first and only time—hit her in the face.  For talking back to whites.  And the next morning, her grandmother put her on a train back to California.

I was willing to follow her anywhere.  Because her voice told me she knew.  She knew what it meant to be a woman, what it meant to be human.  And she trusted that I, too, was human enough to hear her, all the way on the other side of those words she had mustered, so long ago, the courage to speak.

She mustered the courage to speak.  Her gift to me, to all of us.

Over the last weeks, since her death on May 28th (my mother’s birthday), I have been re-reading the memoirs for the first time in many, many years.   And what hits me with the greatest force is how much my life has reflected the very things she was trying to tell me:

That a woman can live, and thrive, on her own.

That a woman can choose to live closest to what is in her heart.

That a woman can become a dancer, then a singer, then an actor, then an activist, and then publish her first book over the age of 40, and then teach.

That reading literature is one sure path to broadening yourself in ways that matter.

That courage can change the course of your life, even–perhaps especially–when you are surrounded by evil.


For many years–in that life before the internet–this photograph was the only image of her I knew.   It was the book jacket photo on all of her rainbow-covered books.  My first year of college, the same year my father suddenly died of a brain tumor, I kept this photo (printed on a postcard) beside my bed.   Hers was the face I looked to for that courage, that belief in self no matter, no matter, no matter what might happen.  For the worst had happened, and there were few left in the world I still trusted to tell me the truth.   I trusted her, because she knew me.  She understood me.  And she had taken the trouble to write:  to all of us–and, with mysterious specificity, to me alone.


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Money, Loss, Death, Life

All my adult life, I’ve had money.   The reason why is my father’s death.  I was 19 when I inherited assets I had no interest in understanding.

For ten years I ignored this money, unable to deal with the burning shame of having benefited from the loss of my father’s life.   For the next ten years, I tried to grow up and gain a little more understanding of what it was I possessed and what it meant.  And for the last few years, I have been spending this money.

I’ve been trying to launch my own small business.  I didn’t think that effort would eat up all but a few thousand of what I once had.  In January of this year I had what I thought was just enough in the bank to deal with any emergencies that might come up with my dog or my car as I work to make my new business viable.

On March 10th, I learned that my dog, Vincent, had some kind of massive growth in his abdomen.  On March 11th, I took him in for surgery.  The total cost of those two days was $4,000.

One week later, I was told that Vincent had an aggressive form of splenetic cancer.  Ten days after that, I was flying to Seattle to teach a series of workshops I had spent the past three months planning.  Vincent had bounced right back from surgery and was safely ensconced with his beloved second family.

On March 31st I found out that Vincent was having massive internal bleeding and that his red blood cell count was so low he could suffocate at any moment.  The only choice for me was to fly back home to fulfill one of the most important obligations of any pet owner:  to offer my cherished animal a swift and painless passage out of this life.

I got off the phone to buy a plane ticket back to North Carolina.  The cheapest ticket was $1,000.  I didn’t have the 24 hours to transfer money from my savings into my checking account.  I had only my first credit card, secured five months earlier.  Because I had never had a credit card before, my credit limit was $500.  I borrowed $1,000 from a hooper friend—someone who is working her ass off night and day to earn enough money to live—to buy my ticket home.  I will never, ever forget her act of kindness.

There was little time to grieve.  I had one perfect last day with my Vincent.  Two days to cry into the arms of my dear loving man-friend.  Then I was on the plane again to the West Coast, finishing my workshop tour.

I have so much love and light in my life.  When I returned home, my brand-new nephew Jim came to visit.  Time holding him.  His precious smile and irresistible giggle!  In the whole wide world, there is nothing sweeter.

Then it was back on the road.  To Maine.  My 10-year-old VW was up to the task– I’ve learned how to be an adult and change my oil and tires regularly.  Plus, I could stop in New York and see Jim again.

Yesterday,  I was two hours into my drive home when the car started shuddering.  At that very moment I was on the phone with the credit card company—it had been six months, I could request a credit increase.  As the car rolled to a stop next to the service station that was miraculously just off the highway, steam rolling out from under the hood, my credit limit was increased from $500 to $1,000.  I got out of the car.

24 hours later,  I sit in the lobby of a Howard Johnson’s in Portland, Maine (who knew they still existed?) waiting for the VW place to call and tell me whether or not my car will ever run again.  I had a lovely breakfast (with a 10% HoJo discount) next door at The Egg and I, and my computer and my phone are fully charged.  I will be able to get home.  My hoop is right next to me.   My nephew is thriving with the two best parents that could ever be imagined for any child.  Mom is making art and planning trips in South Carolina, enjoying the five grands she inherited when she married her second husband ten years ago.

Last night, one of my dearest friends was coaching me on how to buy a car if I need to.  “You’ve got to start thinking like a poor person,” he said.  He’s right.  And yet I feel so very, very rich.

IMG_1118 IMG_1292

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Poem for Vincent

The one we lost never once spoke,
yet his presence could not be mistaken
for another.

No shape will ever again be his.
He marched through the world
with a singularity of purpose
unknown to the human form.

Among us, he flashed
bright and dark, that we might remember
the willingness to serve,
the ease with which silence can be met.

Did you happen to see him once
or twice, with me, out walking?
And with the gladness
in his gait, did your heart
rise, too, like the soft
tips of his ears?

And did you wonder how you ever wanted
such complicated things?




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So, Is Hula-Hooping “Spiritual” or Something?

I would like very much to address this head-on, flinching at neither the inevitable smirkery and scorn of the far-too-well-educated left, nor the peculiarly personal-feeling outrage of the tyrannical right.  I would like to wade directly, as it were, into the open, public pool of the anointed, and proclaim myself a true believer in the hula-hoop as a teacher and guide to the soul’s path through a world even the sanest of the sane cannot help but find incomprehensible.

Now, while all you spinners, hoopers, flow artists, and general circus freaks (i.e. my spirit family) pump your fists in the air and exchange high-fives, I’ll turn to alllllll the other folks, who–I’ll just make an educated guess here–sit reading in a spectrum of attitudes ranging from simple disbelief (“A hula-hoop??  No way!”) to amused contempt (“A hula-hoop!  Wtf  lol”) to cynical exasperation (“A hula-hoop….Jesus”) to–best of all!–self-righteous rage pumped with mighty truckloads of religious justification (“A hula-hoop….as a spiritual practice?!?  GOD HATES YOU AND YOU ARE GOING TO HELL!!!!”)

Of the innumerable gifts that hula-hooping has bestowed upon my highly improbable existence, one of the most valuable is surely this:  the capacity–when faced with the possibility of being branded a raving loon by one’s peers and community for the fanciful and indeed absurdist act of having an independent, new, and profound experience with an inanimate object–to physically relax into receiving the inevitable judgments of the world, and flow with grace.  The hoop, by its very nature in motion, has taught me to flow with the current of things, rather than persist in the reflexive resistance that so predictably characterizes our reaction to new information.   Through interacting with the hoop I have learned the formidable power of conscious surrender, a learning that might not seem very significant until you consider the fact that every one of us will have to, at some point, undergo the surrender of the physical body, and which tasks in life actually prepare us for that?

Which tasks, exactly?

We are a species and, here in the US, a culture, that (if you want to talk about absurd) seizes upon our embodiment to a degree that one must imagine legions of ancestors laughing at uncontrollably.   Who is “ready” for death here?  Come on!  We’re not ready for it and we ain’t about to get ready for it.  There’s work to be done.  Kids to raise.  Places to go.  People to see.  You know the deal….you’re living it.

And I really don’t mean to be facile here– I’m aware that many are praying, talking, thinking about death, trying by any means necessary to prepare a way for the soul to leave the body that doesn’t seem quite as bone-chillingly random as the impossible advent of their original decision to join forces and go forth into the world for a time.   I am very emphatically not dismissing anyone’s individual, painstaking, and inarguably hard-won path towards the individual extinction we are all inexorably and in fact unbearably heading towards one day.  I dismiss no one’s path towards what we (in desperation) call the beyond, the hereafter, the unknown, the unknowable, the afterworld, heaven, nirvana, eternity, the great by-and-by.  I simply ask that my path not be dismissed outright as senseless hooey– at least, not until I’ve had a chance to explain why I view a plastic child’s toy as the most reliable, useful, and indeed sensible spiritual guide I have yet found in this lifetime.  (Note:  As yet, I refuse to take a position on other lifetimes).

As we proceed fearlessly into the highly reactive environment that is bound to attend any discussion of nonreligious faith, I aim to clarify–only for the purposes of this blog post, since even our most passionate assertions can be gutted of meaning by anyone with a command of language and a modicum of zeal–what might be meant when we invoke certain terms.  Here is our mercifully short list:

“Spiritual”:  Contaminated by its association with intellectually flaccid new age thought,  this word simply means to point to anything having to do with the spirit.  Ah, but friends…what is the spirit?

“Spirit”:  Obviously, our understandings of what the spirit is and what it might mean will vary widely.  But in order to discuss whether or not something is “spiritual,” we need to have a working definition of what we mean when we talk about the spirit.  As a species we very conspicuously have a need to identify and name something we call the “spirit” or the “soul.”  At the most elemental level–which is all we have time to concern ourselves with at the moment–the spirit/soul can be understood as that which makes a human body alive rather than dead.  It is very specifically not the body; however, the body is its home.   It could be quite simply understood as everything about an individual human embodied existence which cannot be materially traced somehow back to the body itself.  Emotions and thoughts arguably originate in the body; the spirit does not.  The spirit entered the body the first time you drew breath (its etymology being the Latin spirare, “to breathe”).  And when your last exhale is completed, the spirit will take its leave, too.

Brazenly avoiding any conjecture as to what might or might not happen after that leavetaking, I will confine my comments to what we know about the spirit within the span of a human life.   The spirit/soul is then understood to be entirely invisible, inaudible, and intangible, and yet present in each living human being.  But what else tells us that the spirit is around?  If there weren’t other things in life alerting us to the existence of the spirit, then why would there be a word such as “spiritual”?  We could easily leave it at the distinction:  one is either “alive” (breathing, i.e. occupied by spirit) or “dead” (not breathing, i.e. spiritless).  But we do not.  We ask spiritual questions, we engage in spiritual practices, we take spiritual journeys.  What does spiritual mean, then, in this, its most recognizable context?

Even the most cursory glance at human history compels us to acknowledge that we are, en masse, considerably more likely than not to undertake certain acts widely understood to be in response or in service to the spirit–some of the most popular of these being:  prayer, meditation, worship, ritual, chanting, song, and dance.  Some of these practices are more central to one religious tradition or another.  (Speaking of religion– for the purposes of this blog why don’t we just define religion as any organized and codified spiritual understanding, since religion concerns itself largely with the spirit’s existence on earth as well as, often, its putative existence beyond the world we know…Now, wasn’t that easy?  I knew we could agree!)  From tribal life to pews on Sunday, we see in the fabric of human existence this irrepressible need to somehow contemplate and acknowledge the existence of the spirit, often in some kind of predictable, rhythmic, indeed incantatory fashion.   These practices seem to have have arisen spontaneously in every human culture we have ever heard of, regardless of time, history, or context.  And, obviously, even the staunchest atheists among us have been shocked to discover themselves mouthing a Hail Mary or two after a near-miss on the highway.

It would seem, then, based on this so-widespread-as-to-be-indisputable inclination, that we as a species have intrinsic and ineradicable spiritual needs.  We–again, perhaps not each of us individually, but as a species–seem uniquely compelled to seek some form of expression for the spirit, be that in solitude (prayer, meditation) or in community (church, temple, sweat lodge, mosque, drum circle, gurdwara).

What seems to unite all these disparate contexts is the compulsion to seek a space within which to ask oneself the questions that must, it seems,  be asked by an embodied and conscious being:  Who am I?  What am I?  Where did I come from?  Why am I here?

And if someone should happen to find that space within a 31-inch-wide rotating plastic ring?

Look, I know it’s ridiculous.  The problem with that is:  because I have been able to explore these questions–so crucial to our capacity to make it through this trial of human embodiment without LOSING OUR SHIT COMPLETELY– inside a brightly colored circle that would please many 6-year-olds to play with, I have just plain lost track of the ability to care about its explicit and definitive ludicrousness.

But why the hoop?  Why the circle?  What makes it such a suitable instrument for this introspective practice?  Believe it or not– I think I can answer that question.

For a bit of context, let’s step back into the very early 80s.  I am 10, maybe 11 years old.  My parents have been divorced for a few years.  One of the most dramatic effects of my parents’ largely drama-free parting is that my dad suddenly starts attending a Unitarian church.  Up until the divorce, we had attended the Presbyterian church as a family (a feat achieved with much McDonald’s bribery).  Mom still takes me and my brother there when we are with her on Sunday mornings, and by the same logic, when we are with him, our dad takes us to the UU.

In true Unitarian fashion, there is very little in the way of religious education for us kids.  At the Presbyterian church, children (wearing dresses and patent leather shoes or tiny little jackets and ties) are strictly divided into Sunday school groups by grade and sequestered in a classroom with our age group for an hour of focused learning about who Jesus was and why he was important.   At the UU, all kids are together in a big group.  A few adults are around to keep things from devolving into chaos.  The adults will answer any question you ask.  We draw and talk about things.  We can go outside and play if we want to.  We wear shorts or jeans and t-shirts.  We don’t even have to wear school clothes.

One day, a group of us have been discussing, “What do Unitarians believe?”  The adults’ abstract, philosophical replies haven’t satisfied us, and we are on a quest.  We run into the sanctuary, where the adult service is just ending.  We grab a church pamphlet and start examining the Unitarian symbol, the Circle of Oneness.   It is a beautiful mandala containing all of the symbols of the major world religions:  the sacred Aum, the Star and Crescent, Yin and Yang, the Star of David, the Buddhist Wheel, and also the Cross.   I can still feel the tingling surge of certitude that swept through me at that moment, as I recognized a symbol that expressed the radical inclusivity I knew in the very pit of my heart to be the right Way for me.  One of my best friends was Jewish;  I had been to Shabbat services with her and sung “Adon Olam.”  Another was from a Hindu-turned-Unitarian family— in her home I had beheld the sacred images of Durga, Shiva, and Hanuman.  Looking at the Circle of Oneness, I remember thinking, in a very 10-year-old way, “THIS is the religion for me!”  And our little group—just a gaggle of kids, none of us older than 12—vigorously agreed that yes, we were indeed Unitarians.  Because, as it seemed to us, who wouldn’t be?  We were a church where truly everyone belonged.

25 years later, walking down the street in my funky little college town, I happened to glimpse a hot guy doing what I instinctively recognized to be a sacred dance with what appeared to be a large…black…hula hoop.   I fell in love with the hoop and the guy all at the same time, and within a year my whole life was wonderfully wrapped up in both.  Within the next few years I made hundreds of new friends and traveled the world; I witnessed the steady transformation of shy and perhaps awkward people into powerful dancers and leaders; I watched a cherished friend come back from the very mouth of death and teach himself how to dance again with the hoop; I then witnessed the same friend dance, with heart-cracking grace, into the next world.   I observed myself heal from ancient wounds that had kept me in a specific self-abusive pattern for 20 years.  I saw a former partnership transition and blossom into one of the deepest friendships of my life.  I saw a community grow from a ragtag crew of burner freaks into an earth-spanning movement art revolution centered around the transformational power of this circular dance.  I still sometimes just can’t fully believe it.

But we have left our question— What’s so special about the circle?— far behind us.  Since I’ve already stepped with firm foot all the way out onto this fragile limb of spiritual hypothesis, I’ll come back around (how fitting) and offer my couple of cents to this line of inquiry.

The circle symbolizes both totality and emptiness;  containment and illimitability; irreducible oneness and unfathomable space.   It represents our earth, our sun, our moon, the cycle of human life, time itself.   It represents wholeness, union, indivisibility, self-sufficiency.   How does something so simple—so simple as to seem perhaps almost silly—encompass so very much?  My answer itself is probably even sillier, but it remains to me inescapable:  because it is round.

The circle is actually shorthand for the sphere.  It’s a two-dimensional representation of the sphere.  The sphere is that ultimate geometric form that contains all other forms.  Why?  Because it is round.   It is the roundness of the sphere that gives us insight into the nature and shape of the universe in which we have found ourselves, somehow.   The sphere originates at a specific and irreducible center point, and expands outwards in all directions from that point.  Where we arrest the expansion is arbitrary.  We might delineate the sphere at a radius of one centimeter from the center point, or at a distance of billions of light-years– or (if we dare send our mind on such a strenuous errand) not at all.

If we believe that science can teach us accurate and useful things about our circumstance as animated beings on the face of a rock apparently suspended by sheer nothingness in space (and I do), we know that the Big Bang started with a single point.  And this point somehow exploded.  And ever since that moment, matter and energy have been expanding infinitely outward.  This is one dimension of our lives for which the sphere acts as metaphor.

Carl Jung taught us that our human minds may perceive things not as they are, but in terms of metaphor, in terms of symbol.  These symbols, or archetypes,  “are pre-existent to consciousness and condition it.”  Such symbols “do not in any sense represent things as they are in themselves, but rather the forms in which things can be perceived and conceived.”  The circle is a form.  It is a form that represents the sphere, which is itself a metaphor for the actual shape and nature of our universe.  When our entire being, consciousness and body, is free to explore the shape and intrinsic movement–i.e. rotation–of the circle, we might then come into a heretofore elusive understanding of the nature of our experience within the brain-crippling vastness that surrounds us.  Which is all any of us are ever looking for– isn’t it?–when we kneel down in prayer.

More than 30 years ago, with a group of kids in the Unitarian church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I happened upon one spiritual symbol that made a conspicuous kind of sense.  I never imagined it would surge back into my life in such a dramatic, strange, and indisputably fun way, and serve to at least receive the huge questions that still abound in my heart, and mind, and– I admit– sometimes weary spirit.  I have grown out of hoping that my spiritual questions might be answered— I just feel blessed that I have a space in which to explore that infinite landscape which contains everything we cannot know in human terms.   Yes, a circle.  A preposterous ring of plastic, decorated with shiny tape.  A hula-hoop.  It is my temple.  And I invite you– and everyone– to give it a whirl.  Because it excludes absolutely nothing, and absolutely no one.


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To Begin Is To Fail

The first time I felt the sickening haunt of failure, I was eleven years old.   I was in math class.  The teacher, Mrs. Burnett, was young and irritable.  She sported a short pixie haircut (it was 1981) and two front teeth that pushed inward, giving her a strange (and not, it seemed to me, entirely coincidental) fanged look.

At this point in my life, I never did homework.  I don’t know exactly why, but I know I did not do it.  This unfortunate habit translated to As in English, Bs in History, and, usually, Cs in Science and Math.   I just moved forward.  I didn’t see a way out of or through the airy state of perplexity that would descend over me like a caul when Math or Science began to happen around me.  I would always figure out enough not to get every single problem or question wrong, and that seemed sufficient.  Barely– but sufficient.

One afternoon, during our post-lunch rest period, when we could be reading or working on homework (you know which one I was doing)  Mrs. Burnett called me over to her desk.  Because she never did this, I felt a tiny thrill being singled out in such a way.   Was I going to be in a spelling bee?  I would win.  I knew it.

“Ann,” she said portentously, looking up at me over her enormous early-80s pale pink glasses frames, “we are three weeks away from our next quarterly report cards, and I thought I should let you know that at this point, you are failing math.”  That was all she said.  She just sat there, looking at me, while I felt my face go hot with a rage and humiliation I had no way of understanding.  She did not offer me any kind of solution or recourse.  Neither, needless to say, did she offer me any kind of comfort, or reassurance.   She let me walk back to my desk, alone, the other kids’ eyes bright with the questions they would hit me with the minute class ended:  “What did you do?  Did you get in trouble?”

When I got to my desk, I did the only thing I felt capable of doing, which was to bend forward and balance my forehead on its edge, so as to hide my red face dripping tears onto the floor.   There was nothing else to do.   I couldn’t even think about who might be looking at me– all that mattered was not to see myself being seen.   I could pretend for a while.  I was alone…a mark had been attached to me.  The mark was the letter F.  I was smart and it didn’t matter because I was dumb at the same time.  I was dumber than I was smart.

I can feel that feeling as though Mrs. Burnett spoke those words to me to me only an hour ago.  It has been almost thirty-three years.

In 2010, my former business (and everything else) partner and I decided that we needed to continue on as wholly separate entities.  I had been learning hoopdance with him for four wonderful years, but now it was time to make our way, each on our own.  I was nervous, but excited.   A whole new world was ready for me–and I, in my sunny, optimistic way, felt ready for it.

I spent the next three years honing my skills as a movement artist.  I was fortunate enough to be able to rent out my house in North Carolina and spend some time in New York, where I drank in every art event that came my way and spent hours daily exploring movement in my apartment-studio, taking notes on every new discovery and painstakingly translating each new insight into concepts and exercises for my weekly classes and weekend workshops.  I then traveled for two years, teaching these new ideas, which– I always take care to note– were built on the rock-solid foundation of my former teacher and partner’s immense and immensely insightful body of work.

I found my own vision.  I would provide an online resource for all the hoopers and hoopers-to-be out there in the world who didn’t have what I had– weekly access to a passionately dedicated hoop teacher who made dancing with the hoop comprehensible, interesting, and possible.  There are many, many excellent hoopdance tutorials already out there, but not much in the way of a singly-focused hoop curriculum, a clear and consistent structure on which an understanding of hoop and body, and their unique union, might be amplified and expanded in an ongoing and simplifying way.

For the first and only time in my life I had found a project that absorbed me utterly, satisfied my need to do work that adds something good to people’s lives, engaged me on every imaginable creative and intellectual level, and seemed fascinating and meaningful enough to do forever.

I tapped all my most talented friends, spent almost all the savings I possessed in this world, and at the end of three years I had the website of my dreams.  Beautiful, organic-feeling, functional, and…just…exactly right. Exactly as I wanted it– to be an invitation to people, not a blingy, blinking horsefly buzzing in people’s faces with the false urgency of BUY NOW, YOU MUST BUY NOW.  Because my experience has been that those who need the hoop, find it.  Or it finds them.  Us.

Just over two weeks ago, I finally launched the site. I enjoyed about 48 hours of post-partum euphoria before it began to dawn on me that I was staring down another years-long marathon of work,  for which I had no education, no preparation, no formal training, and no intuitive advantage.   I’m talking about the work of marketing.

I started to realize this because in the first week after launching the site I sold only three classes.


That’s three, total.

At the same time I was realizing this, several year-end bills were coming due.  I had to again dip into my vastly depleted savings to cover these bills (property tax, homeowners’ insurance, car insurance, and last year’s taxes, to name a few).  The very same week, I received a letter from my health insurance company informing me that my premiums were (for no stated reason) going to double starting January 1.  Suddenly, I was going to be one of the millions of Americans navigating (and thanking god for) the new options now available to us through the Affordable Care Act.

Within the same few days, I bounced a check and had to cover it with funds transferred from my business account.  Then, I got a call from my bank telling me my business account was about to be overdrawn (a check was coming in from workshop space rental) if I didn’t get funds in by 2pm that day.  I scrambled, panicking, transferring funds back from personal to business and then covering my ass with more transfers from my fast-dwindling Paypal account.  Then, I got a call from the cable company–somehow, I hadn’t received the last two bills (having just switched over everything to online billing) and I was now in arrears, past due for two months (how did I not realize this?!) and in danger of having my home internet connection suspended.  Put it on a credit card.  Move forward.

During this same span of ten or so days, I had only one student show up to my introductory hoop class for two weeks in a row.  The first week, I thought it was a fluke–that can always happen when you have a new, ongoing, drop-in class.  But the following week the single student who showed up was a dear friend, and she gently broke it to me that there were perhaps reasons other than luck that people were not showing up to the class.  It was the same feedback I had always gotten–I like to use words, sometimes too many of them–but this time I had to see and acknowledge the bigger picture, which was that, in planning the class lessons, I had entirely failed to take into account the actual, defining needs of beginning hoopers–the most important of which is to find an immediate, physical, and personal connection to the hoop, outside ideas, outside the neocortex, outside language…outside words.

In my zeal to simplify the techniques of hoopdance for my prospective students through a unique conceptual framework, I had spectacularly failed to take into account the single most significant feature of a class for new hoopers, which is to offer them a reason to hoop.   A way to connect to this big, awkward, even comically bizarre object.  The only hope I have ever had in dedicating my life to this bizarre object is that others might happen to find the joy and freedom through dance that I was able to find through this most unlikely of portals.  

And I had failed.

To be forty-three.  To start a business on your own.  To put everything–literally everything you have in the world– into it.  To have trusted your own judgment so far past what you could have reasonably earned through experience.  To feel the cold, terrifying whistle of the endless space beneath us, of the bottom that has already dropped out, because it is not there and never has been there to catch us.   This is what the ghost of failure feels like, as it sweeps past and breathes its icy breath down the back of your neck, where you haven’t tightened a scarf because you didn’t think you needed one.  It was warm this morning, years ago, when you left the house.

To begin something is to be willing to endure this stomach-turning, gooseflesh-making, face-searing feeling, not just once, and not just a couple of times, but over and over and over again, day after day.  I hadn’t remembered this.  I hadn’t had time.  In my eager rush, I had forgotten what it felt like to be a beginner.  To fail again, and again, and again.  And to keep trying.

So I just might have something to offer my students at the next class, after all.

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Digging Deep

After my father died, there was a year of pure incomprehension—a novocained horror that no word or thought possessed enough truth to penetrate. Through the spiraling cord of the dun-colored dorm room telephone I heard my mother say:  He’s gone, and my childhood, which was everything I had known up until that moment, simply disappeared over a cliff.  I had no idea I would never see it again.

When grief finally descended, its enormity enveloped me entirely. I was 19.  To try to speak of what I felt was beyond imagining.  To speak of it would be to open my throat to the emptiness I now knew to be swinging beneath all things at all times.  To speak of it would be to acknowledge my father’s unbeing.  It would be like throwing dirt into his grave, on top of him, tossing dirt into his face.  To speak of it was to give my permission that he no longer be.  This was the thing that was unthinkable.

Those long years of my twenties, when I lived in a young adult’s body with the mind of a teenager and the gravid heart of a bitter old woman, there were exactly two occasions on which words comforted me.  The first happened about a year after my father’s death.  I was visiting his church, the Unitarian Universalist congregation of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  It was a new year service, in which the joys and sorrows of the past year were invited to be shared and acknowledged.  In this room there were faces I had known almost all my life.  I wanted to stand and witness.  I hadn’t known about the annual ritual and had nothing prepared.  I stood and my voice shattered out in a crazed jangle.  My deep, involuntary sobs rang against the walls like a fire alarm. One of my father’s dearest friends ran over and threw her arms around me from behind my chair, rocking me until I could become quiet.  It took awhile.

Moments after the service ended, a woman I had never seen before came right up to me, took me by the shoulders, and looked straight into my eyes.  “After my father died,” she said, “It took me ten years to speak of him without crying.”  She enfolded me in a warm, tight hug.  I struggled for the breath to thank her.  I don’t know who she was and I never saw her again.

Several years later, I was working for The Sun Magazine in Chapel Hill.  Sometimes, when I came to pick up manuscripts, I would sit in the back of the office and read back issues.  Once I happened upon an essay written by my friend and boss, editor Sy Safransky.  He spoke movingly about both his fragmented and troubled relationship with his forbidding, traditional Jewish father, and the utter shock and desperate sorrow he felt when the old man died.   The essay ended with an old saying that my memory says came from the Persians:  “You have to dig deep to bury your daddy.”  Even the ancient ones had known my sadness.

This week—twenty-four years after my dad’s death—I have been in Bali, at a hoopdance retreat I help facilitate each year.  And though every hoop gathering is special, something different is possible here.  I feel it now.

The container, the metaphysical phenomenon of energetic space, that spirals out of our gathering here is strong and gentle enough to allow the long-buried water table of my grief to move and flow again, tasting as pure as it did the day it first poured through me.  There is no real logic or sensible explanation in this.  It somehow comes from the land, from the gods in this land, from the deeply gentle people who live in this enchanted place, and from the dreams and love my fellow hoopers bring and surround me with here.

Looking at it from a practical standpoint, there is no good reason to travel to Bali—or, really, anywhere.  In many ways our world is imploding.  There are many more things in life that would seem, from many or even most perspectives, to be much more pressingly important to attend to.  You won’t find me arguing on that front.

But when it comes to the art of healing, there is mystery, unpredictability, strangeness, and the containment of radically divergent truths.  I don’t even fully understand what is happening to me here, or how.  I do know that for a long time I have felt that the terrible, sickening shadow left by my father’s disappearance from this world, which felt wrong on all imaginable levels, has hung too heavily over the light of his being, which lit the world for fifty wonderful years.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve felt an obscure but overpowering sadness when I see a man dining alone at a restaurant.  Especially, somehow, if it’s a man who seems to find pleasure in his meal, in his single glass of wine.  As a waitress I had to hold back tears a few times over the years, serving men like this in my section.

Tonight, as I received a reflexology treatment on my danced-out feet, I suddenly saw in my mind’s eye an intersection in my old hometown, and the shiny black exterior of a bar and grill my dad was particularly fond of.  It was one of the places we’d hit for dinner when my brother and I spent the night with him, a couple of times a week for some ten years.  And suddenly it struck me…the other five nights a week.  My dad was the man eating alone in the restaurant.  Enjoying his meal, certainly, enjoying his one glass of white wine.   But alone.

As I lay on the table, my tears falling into the bowl of flowers beneath my face, I decided that tonight I would roll up to the heavy door of First Street Bar and Grill, and pull it open.  I would see a handsome, blue-eyed man, about fifty years old maybe, sitting alone at the bar with a salad and a basket of bread, the top button of his white starched dress shirt undone, his blue striped tie slightly loosened.  His light brown hair going a little gray at the temples.  His bright, intelligent, open expression.  And I decided I would walk in, sit down next to him, order myself a large ginger ale—with lime—and turn to him, and start a conversation.

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Mama Dora

Under the soft circle of light from her living room lamp
Mama Dora would slowly scratch my scalp and back
as I leaned against her knees, watching Hee Haw.
The little dun ottoman held the center of the simple room,
as though settled in the knowledge that it was enough,
backed by the solid ship of the brown nubbly couch.

I could drink my own sweet tea, poured heavily
from the caramel-colored enamel pitcher into a glass glass,
and I could eat a peanut butter and jelly on Bunny bread
even hours after supper
just by asking for it– or cereal–
the miracle of cereal at night.

At bedtime she would sit in front of her vanity,
a wedding gift, bought new in 1925
and pull the dark combs from the flat fold of shining white hair–
the long silk shock of it.
I could touch it.

When it was time to climb into bed I was beside her, holding her,
and my parents knew– I was too little
to sleep alone away from home.  They hoped she would hold me.
Her warm dry body covered in a clean cotton nightdress, and her hands
so soft I had to press them into my face
and smell them.

It is late on a summer night, my father has not yet carried me, heavy,
from the sweet clasp of Mama Dora
to the cold, cold bed of the Oldsmobile.
Everything has not yet happened.
The world made up of everything you feel
before judgment.

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