31 Days of Black Minimalism: Week 4

This year’s gluten free, vegan Thanksgiving feast: cannellini bean succotash, wild rice quinoa stuffing, roasted Brussels sprouts, roasted sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and just a dollop of almond milk Greek yogurt. Awesome.  

This year’s gluten free, vegan Thanksgiving feast: cannellini bean succotash, wild rice quinoa stuffing, roasted Brussels sprouts, roasted sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and just a dollop of almond milk Greek yogurt. Awesome.  

I woke up from a dream this morning, in which I was eating plastic. Literally. I'd eaten a takeout container or two, and a couple of those black, plastic spoons they have on the salad bars and hot bars at grocery stores. They were in shards and small pieces inside me, taking up a lot of space, but I knew and could feel that I wasn't being nourished. I was afraid of what would happen when I tried to... eliminate, and was sure that all that plastic was going to tear the insides of my bowels apart.

So my body knows, my subconscious knows. I'm not eating well. This is due to a number of factors: my routine, and my struggle to work it in the most efficient way so I continue to nourish myself; choices I've made about how to eat, which mean I don't just throw any old thing into my mouth; the unique bouquet of cravings and samskaras that have a solid grip on the choices I make, especially when I'm too stressed or tired to do better; previous programming, which is loosening its grip with each passing day. Whatever the case, feeding myself is sometimes a challenge.

Wow. I'm an adult. Like, I have a mortgage, I've been married for years, I had to sue somebody once-adult. And I'm still having to wrestle with making sure I eat the way I want to: eat food that tastes good, that doesn't harm my body, and doesn't harm others or the planet. What I eat has been a source of contention between me and other people. Lucky for me I share my home with a man who doesn’t really mind what I eat, so long as I’m choosing to eat, and not stuck in a pattern of eating my feelings, and so long as I’m relatively healthy. I don’t get crap from him about choosing not to eat animals who are… harmed* before they’re killed in order to put food on plates. I don’t get mocked by my partner, which is more than I can say for other members of my family. But that’s a different story for a different day. (And if you want to hear it, you can find it on this page, at least until I get bumped off this podcast.)

I take a lot of pleasure in eating. Being both gluten free and vegan means I get to be creative about how I eat. It doesn’t take much work for my meals not to taste like rabbit food, but still, I get to have a lot of fun considering how I’ll compose breakfast or dinner in such a way that it’s healthy and interesting.

Eating like a minimalist is challenging for me. I like to spend time making food. I like meals with lots of different, even fancy, ingredients. Now, I haven’t found any clear manual about what minimalist eating is, and frankly, I’m not sure how interested I am. I understand that the fewer ingredients in food generally the healthier it is, and generally the fewer apparatuses its touched the easier it’ll be for me to digest. But minimalist eating is… hard to pin down.

I think not only am I struggling to figure out what it means to engage in minimalist eating, but the controlling nature of eating this way makes me feel a bit unstable. I feel like I’m tiptoeing toward disordered eating, a landscape I’ve been in before (hard to imagine any woman in America hasn’t been there before). It took me months to finish this blog post because the week or so that I spent experimenting with this practice was triggering. I couldn’t reflect on it because I didn’t like the way it felt. Finally, after some distance and time, and the capacity to remember that nourishing doesn’t mean processed crap, but also doesn’t mean two baby peas, three grains of rice, and a thimble full of hummus for lunch—after all that, I can write that I’m happy eating the way I do, even if it’s not always convenient, or even understandable, to others, and that while I can try not to be wasteful about it, I can also be creative without compromising my minimalism.

Look at this.

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I was recently at Union Theological Seminary, and as a part of their swag bag, they gave me this reusable utensil set. A sustainably grown bamboo fork, knife, spoon AND chopstick set all housed in this pouch made of recycled water bottles. I was just knocked out by it: that is some ecological justice, right there! I carry it in my bag (so long as it fits) wherever I go, and I don’t have to worry about using plastic unnecessarily. I Love It!

So, minimalism at the table is tricky. The next step for me isn’t about eating less, or controlling my calories or portions more; it’s about making sure I buy and take only what I know I will eat, using what I buy, and wasting as little as possible. That will be a tough and exciting challenge.

Lifting my Voice

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I don’t have a lot of memories of worship, but the ones I do linger indelibly, like scars that never fade: I was maybe 14. For some reason I’d joined the youth choir: I don’t know why, I hated singing, everything always seemed to be too high or too low, and I’d wind up screeching like a wounded bird or bellowing like cattle. Not only this, but I was painfully shy. I hated drawing attention to myself, and as an only child, I was often put on the spot to perform for friends and relatives, to be impressive. Singing was the absolute worst.

My mother and I were in church together, my father was somewhere, working. The pastor got up to speak, and before he did, he asked if the youth choir would get up and sing something.

Never have I wished so fervently for a trap door to open and swallow me up. Horror seized me, clamping its fist around my stomach. I darted my eyes around the sanctuary: there weren’t many of us “youth” there, so I could tell that my thin, scared voice would not be well-masked, but that people would be able to hear me.

I turned to my mother. “Don’t make me go,” I whispered as she poked my leg.

“Go on, Jessica, you’re part of the youth choir,” she whispered back.

“Please, I don’t want to, please, please don’t make me go,” I grabbed her hand, my eyes begging.

She likely hissed at me that I was embarrassing her—my representing well was of crucial importance because my behavior was always a reflection on her—and I reluctantly stepped out of our pew and plodded up to the front of our small sanctuary.

I don’t remember what we sang, but I remember that it felt like it would never end. I’m sure the anguish of singing, and the fear of being heard, was written all over my face.

When I returned to my seat, she let me have it, her face a contorted mask of rage, her voice a laser-like, acidic whisper: what a disappointment I was, why I couldn’t just act right, how humiliated she was by me. I sat beside her, weeping silently, furious with her that she would make me put myself in such a difficult position so she could feel good about herself, and even more angry that she didn’t understand how scary it was for me to open up my mouth and sing anything. I knew I hadn’t done well, she shouldn’t have made me go in the first place because it was clear I was going to suck out loud—and I had!—and somehow that was my fault too.

Just another worship experience.

*

As a yoga teacher, I have to use my voice all the time: it’s easier now to project around the room when I need to so that folks can hear me as I remind them to use their breath; I don’t even mind finding a note to let OM begin to ring through me, hopeful (but not demanding) that others join me in the sound. I’ve been able to overcome my shyness—or maybe the desire to teach and hold space for other people is stronger than the desire to be swallowed up by burnt orange Berber carpet—so that speaking up is easier to do. Chanting is the easiest part of class, both as a student and a teacher. My teacher practices a chant at the start of every class he teaches. He says he does it to center himself, to ask for guidance and clarity, wisdom and light, in the endeavor he’s about to make in teaching, and that even if no one else joined him, he’d still belt it out full force. When I started training with both my senior teachers, they taught me a mantra that I try to practice every day. The first time I heard it, I got chills: not sure if it was the circle-as-container, the deep vibration of their voices together, or just the intersection of Sanskrit, my body, and my heart. But whatever it was, it landed on me in a big way.

In class as a practitioner whenever I open my mouth, I work to listen to the voice of my teacher, and the voices of the others around me, in pursuit of a kind of blending of vibrations. When I’m teaching, I make sound that I hope will seal and affirm the energy of the room, and give the students a foundation on which they can allow their own voices to be raised, trembling or clear, flat pitch or true.

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My friend Allegra, who’s the executive director of Sharing Notes invited me to take part in something called the #MusicMakesItBetter challenge: you record an image or video of yourself singing or playing an instrument, as a way to shine a light on how music is a tool for healing, and deepening experiences. This morning I sat with my shruthi box, which many of you have asked about, and chanted a few verses of the Sri Sukta on camera. This was not easy. I know what it is to chant, and still, there was no small amount of anxiety as I sat down in front of my phone.

Singing worship music (with the exception of some sacred Christmas carols) still doesn’t make me feel much of anything except dread. But now, learning Sanskrit and using it as a tool for physical and spiritual practice is lovely. It’s powerful. My body, being made of so much water, and other, stronger, denser tissues and open spaces, vibrates beautifully when I open my mouth and let Sanskrit prayer come out of it. Unlike when I was a girl, I worry less about how I sound, or what others will think of me, and I let my body make the sound; and when I want to be silent, I keep my mouth closed allow the inner voice to make the sound that communes with the divine. What a great gift.

I can’t say anything magical to 14-year-old me that makes that painful memory of singing in public any easier. I can only say that more than twenty years later, I feel grateful to engage in a worship experience on my own terms, and excited that even though my voice isn’t really any better, I’m at least able to use it as an instrument for divine connection. You can check it out here. Hope you’ll share your #MusicMakesItBetter experiences too.

31 Days of Black Minimalism Week 3

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or, a yogi's case for minimalism.

I've been thinking about this post since I began downsizing, minimizing, purging, whatever the right verb is; but it's a difficult one for me to write. I think my struggle is bound in the discovery that releasing all this stuff, which is bringing up patterns of past programming and current behavior, as well as showing me things (and people and attitudes) it's time for me to release. This practice feels like a kind of spiritual one. I had no expectation that would happen. 

I want to acknowledge this is tricky ground I'm treading on. Those of us who were raised in any kind of religious or spiritual tradition probably have thoughts or feelings about the relationship between people of faith and the wealth that they amass: the relationship between our practice of faith, belief, or morality, and our practice of consumerism. I am not going to write an essay about how your personal spiritual practice is your own private slot machine, if only you are earnest enough.

Instead, I want to explore the questions of whether or not this call I'm answering is perhaps rooted in a spiritual place inside my life. 

In November of last year, one of my teachers taught me the first two verses of the Sri Sukta. She translated the verses for us, and pointed us in the direction of a teacher who would be able to share more of it if we were interested, specifically because it could be a spiritual practice for us interested in our spiritual practice as an aid to cultivate good and banish the dark, evil forces in our world (which feel like they're growing stronger than ever). A week later, my teachers' teacher initiated me into this practice. Our world needs the healing and power of the divine feminine, he said. I was all over this practice: the idea of a mantra practice that will help me and help me help the world? A practice invoking the divine feminine as a tool of healing and transformation, micro and macro? Where do I sign?

I got my printout of the Sanskrit and English transliteration, and downloaded a recording of instruction and recitation onto my phone, and every morning I sat and s-l-o-w-l-y learned the first 4-5 verses. I did my best, and I enjoyed it, but it was challenging. 

Then, in February, I went to India. 

The first two weeks I was there, staying at an ashram in Khajuraho, I was in the community that had given me the tools to begin learning it, that had taught it to my teachers, and they chanted it every day at the same time, as I'd been instructed, three times through with the final couplet added on only at the end. Every day I brought my folded little printout into the temple and sat and chanted. When I left the ashram, I kept practicing, for myself, for my community, for the world.

This slokam has a lot to do with Lakshmi. There's a lot of language about really resplendent qualities and objects: moons, suns, blessings and gifts, riches, lotuses, (also cows, which are hard to consider so blessings, but think agrarian), healing plants, auspicious behaviors, beneficent presence: the translation of it is really quite lovely. Now. You don't have to look far on the interwebs to see language that tells you that Lakshmi is the goddess you pray to if you're seeking prosperity. I believe in the blessings of God, and sometimes those are financial blessings, too. I got no problem with that. Still, I get a little wary of spiritual practices we tie to our bank account: I remember prosperity doctrines from the tradition I was raised in, that can assert that if you don't have the job/house/man*/blessing you want, it's because your faith isn't pure or true enough, because Gawd knows your heart and your heart isn't clear and you haven't earned it or don't deserve it. So when I see brightly colored websites or videos promising riches and blessings we can't imagine if we chant to Lakshmi, I start to get flashbacks. But that isn't the attitude I brought to the practice. I listened to this podcast that re-contextualized Lakshmi for me, and then it seemed perfectly obvious to me that as I moved deeper into the Sri Sukta, I'd start eliminating those things from my life that are distractions from my priorities. 

It has been so compelling to consider this practice, of letting go of unnecessary items and creating space in my home, in my life, in my heart, to be a spiritual one. I hadn't considered that it could/would be, but of course it is. It makes a lot of sense that it is. Not in a kind of ascetic sense, wherein I believe that God wants me to take a vow of poverty and relinquish everything I own, though that is a part of the path, a part of some folks' path, and I'm not saying I'm closed to it. It's more that the Divine hasn't been able to fill up my life because I've been keeping too much baggage in the way. So if I let go of all this stuff that I've been clinging to (by which I don't just mean old yearbooks and holey sweaters, but also outmoded ways of self-identifying, or relationships that are a hindrance to my growth), She can pour more of herself into me and my life. 

Amazing.

I've also learned how important a pratyahara practice is for me. It's hard for me to be still and quiet, but it's important. It's not necessarily that I consider myself an introvert or a houthouse orchid, that I need to be particularly tender with myself. But when the nature of work is outpouring, it's vital to have a practice that is investing: for as much prana is going out, the same amount has to go in. Otherwise, we find ourselves slowly but surely in a deficit situation. 

Everything we take in requires some capacity of energy to ingest and digest. Agni is the biological fire or heat energy that governs metabolism, says Dr. Lad. Our agni doesn't just take in what we eat: it also has to contend with what we listen to, what we watch, who we talk with, all of what comes in. What, then, are we asking our agni to digest? Are we feeding it enough to keep it strong, or are we taxing it by over-saturating our internal fire with too much, too fast?

We have the eight limbs of yoga, right, thanks to the Sutras: yamas (external restraints), niyamas (internal observances), asana (posture), pranayama (breath retention), pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (complete absorption of consciousness in the Self). The first four use the external tool of the body, the last three are deeply internal and involve the individual consciousness connecting with the Absolute. Pratyahara is a kind of gatekeeper between the two. Pranayama works as a buddy with it, I find: not only does pranayama affect the physical body in a profound way, but it also can affect the mind quite powerfully and directly. Pratyahara is the practice by which we take ourselves so far inward that we begin to connect to absorption with the Self. 

It's important for each of us to recognize, what in our life is a tool for connection with the Divine, and what is a distraction for connection with the Divine. Practicing minimalism is teaching me is to evaluate what my priorities are, what I value, what I want to have around and what I don't, and to eliminate those things/people/practices that are distractions on the path. Not only is it possible that extra stuff in my life is unnecessary or wasteful, it's also getting in the way of the meaningful connection that I'm seeking with God.

When I came home from India, I spent a lot of time being frustrated because I felt crowded. Isn't that funny: Yeah, I felt a little short on space sometimes in a city of 22 million people, but  in my own, climate-controlled, clean house, I got twitchy and angry about it. The desire for more space is what led me to start purging. It occurs to me now I am making space for my spiritual practice, and making space as spiritual practice, and not just eliminating old, worn out, or surplus goods.

There is so much language in the tradition of cleanliness and elimination, of discernment. Clearing out and clearing away allows us to really see, to see more clearly and see more truly. The brilliant thing about existence is that it allows us to experience the Divine-as-Created-Thing-or--Person. But we often forget the temporary nature of that divine created thing. We confuse the object with the Divine.

So what if my desire for minimalism is a spiritual practice to eliminate all the places where I fail to see the Divine, to highlight the Divine-as-Created-Thing in my own life, and to prioritize that so I can move deeper toward Them?

I don't seek to create a kind of monastic existence, but maybe I can remember that my home and the life I am constructing are both a kind of divine practice.

 

 

*because it is always single women who are looking for a man in the context of this dialogue. It's not my experience that non-hetero-identified people get preached at this way. But then, the church has its own special, historical brand of totally crappy behavior when it comes to those folks. 

India: Part Two

Disclosure:

Because this is a blog and because blogging lends itself to lists and roundups, I'm gonna try to avoid the how to dress in/do's and don'ts for/how to survive 40 days in/ what others won't tell you about traveling in--India. If you want to read that, it's out there. Instead, this is what my friends and teachers would call an instance collection: a series of vignettes, some short, some long, that will hopefully create a composite narrative, at the very least of my time there. Not imminently practical travel advice, per se; but hopefully deeply useful personal reflection, that will make you think about yourself, and how you move through the world around you.

*

when your fist opens

finally, the bird you've trapped 

inside can fly home.

The first few hours and days were a struggle of contract and release, contract and release: something in me wanting to be sweet, soft, wanting to release and let go; and something else groping, unsure, certain that the only thing I can do to protect myself is clinch, grip, hold on. Fear is like sweat on me here, in the corners of my face, my thigh creases, the small of my back: anxiety about being the only black woman in this white yoga community in a country of brown people, anxiety about standing out, about "doing it wrong, about getting lost or harmed or hurt, and being so far away from what I know. I chose this, I know that. I wanted it, and I still do. but that choice doesn't make my time easier.

*

On the crowded, dark British Airways flight from London Heathrow to Delhi, a well-fed white man pokes at his smartphone in confusion, and mutters a few phrases to the bearded steward nearby perched in front of a row of chairs. I am already seated, in a seat that is bigger than some, but still feels small, and they are a few rows in front of me. 

The flight attendant is wearing a royal blue suit with red accents. He says to the man with his phone out, "Sir there is no Wi-Fi here, we want you to connect to God."

I laugh. The man with the phone does not think this is funny. This makes me laugh even more. 

*

The first four or five days were like moving through a world that was alternately fascinating and dilating, soothing and grating. I'd find myself feeling so excited to eat pona rice, flat and dry and gently spiced, with perfectly salted roasted peanuts. Then two hours later I'd suppress an urge to hurl my journal down and flip a table over, I was so irritated by... whatever. By everything and nothing. The jet lag is like a meat mallet: you can't avoid it, and it pounds you into surrender; I think it accounts for a large part of what Westerners describe as "the Magic of India." We arrive here sticky-mouthed, smelly, bleary-eyed, confused, ready to push the bar and get our miracle or enlightenment or supernatural experience, whatever cultural tourism checklist we've brought in our pocket. And then things go wrong, and we run out of energy or caffeine, we run out of the ability to resist or struggle, and the culture, the heat, the vibration descends on us. 

*

It is strange to go to India and tell people that you teach yoga, when they (inevitably) ask what do you do? At least it was for me. I felt that on some level I'd co-opted a practice that was an integral part of the spiritual and cultural landscape of Indian culture for centuries, and added glow sticks and goats and wine and Lady Gaga and $98 (or more) translucent pants that are probably made in India and sold to the women who populate my classroom so I can scrape out some kind of living. Yep! I'm part of that wave! 

(I want to resist a strong urge to write that the yoga that I teach is different, and to list all the ways I've constructed my teaching to consciously work against the capitalist consumerist culture of the west, even while being stuck--by choice and circumstance, I'll acknowledge--in the machine of our economy, blah, blah, blah. That's important. But the instinct to say so isn't important; it's just defensiveness; pride; asmita.)

The time (two weeks) I spent at the ashram was so clarifying, and so painful, and so moving, and so maddening. I've spoken to yogis at home, and they ask about it with a shine in their eyes, part mysticism, part skepticism, part intrigue, part envy--did your third eye open and did you have visions and did you hurt yourself because some teacher gave you a lousy adjustment, are you enlightened, have you been changed? And the answer to almost all these questions is Yes & No. So, because I am unable to put this part into a narrative that is interesting, and easy to follow, a list:

Lessons I Learned at the Ashram

  • (part of) my work as a student and teacher of this life practice, yoga, is to talk to yogis of privilege about their privilege (generally speaking, I think this means, but is not limited to, white privilege) and how it manifests in their practice. 
  • Because, you know, that happens.
  • Most (white) yogis do not know how to discuss their privilege, much less have much interest in doing so. At All.
  • People who have chosen or discovered that this is their work must be UNCOMPROMISING  in their self-care routine. At its best the work is challenging and full of discovery, and at its worst, it bleeds workers dry. Your nervous system cannot tolerate this sustained calling without deep, righteous, meaningful and sustainable nourishment.
  • Yogis hurt each other, even super yogis (especially super yogis. With all of our resources and practices, we still have not perfected the work of maintaining our personal integrity when we are in positions of power. It is dangerous, insidious, and profoundly damaging.)
  • Harm perpetrated in community doesn't just harm individuals, it harms the community. This harm must be processed for further integration. Anything less than this is not healing; it is repression, injury turned inward that will inevitably leak outward and continue to harm.
  • A person's capacity to discuss the experience of their harm is in direct proportion to their capacity to process that harm: or, if we can't talk about it, then we haven't dealt with it, or haven't acknowledged it.
  • people, even yogi people, will do whatever they can to avoid dealing with harm and pain they "can't" process.
  • This practice of hiding from harm undermines and contradicts the practice of yoga.
  • The practice of yoga is both individual and communal; the former without the latter is shallow and self-indulgent and the latter without the former is self-righteous and demanding. Neither leads to integration with the Divine. 

I thought I went without expectations, but when I left the ashram without the information and resources I was missing, well, I learned that wasn't true. Still, I came out with an incredible and valuable learning experience, brought on by self-study and my willingness to engage with the teachings and the Divine in a forward-moving, unflinching way. Deep questions, asked by myself and others. Sometimes it really hurt. While I don't love the pain, I am grateful for the lessons.

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I say that it's hard to be a woman in our world right now, and then I wonder, has it every been easy to be a woman in this world, and I consider that even with all the things that capitalism and patriarchy throws at us, that it's probably easier to be a woman in the company of other women. When we are secure, when we can appreciate others and understand how amazing each of us is, when we remember we are free of the fear that spawns competition for resources, then I bet it's easy to be a woman.

It was not easy for me to be a (black, American) woman in India. I was in the company of men a lot. So many men. Who seemed to feel affronted by my presence, and also pointedly interested in who I was and why I was there. In largely white, western contexts, it is hard to find ease because my blackness makes me different, unsafe, threatening; white people may indulge in racist hysteria, and perceive me as a threat, and then all hell could break loose. In this place, where being brown was normal, but not my kind of brown, I felt as conspicuous as ever, and also at times, as diminished and disposable as any woman ever has.

Still, I saw women Getting It Done wherever I went: women carrying bricks in bowls and stacks on top of their heads; women zipping through traffic in kurtas, jeans, and backpacks, their faces and heads swathed in scarves and sunglasses, on their way to work or university; women perched on the back of motorbikes already overfull with men and children speeding down highways, nursing infants without shame or apology, like breastfeeding in a sari while sitting on a seat the size of a shoebox  speeding down the road at 50 kilometers an hour was just all in a day's work (which it is); women deep in devoted worship; women hard at the manual labor of keeping home; women lounging in grassy fields in dialogue with men; women artisans, women in conversation and community with other women. They blew me away.

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I can understand why the yogis went (still go) up into the mountains or beside the banks of the rivers to practice being close to God in this portion of the planet. There is such a quiet here. The presence of the elements--of earth, water, fire, air, and space--feels pervasive, like all you have to do is open your eyes and there it is. It hasn't rained while I've been here, but it is hard for me to imagine the way this country changes when it rains.

I like the city. I miss the city. And I understand how my practice would grow, and how it would change me, were I to come to a place like this and dedicate my life to it. 

*

India is like no place I've ever been to. When I returned, a family member said to me, "I bet you're more grateful to be an American now, huh?" It was confusing to me. As critical as I am of my country--of its deeply flawed history, of the profoundly dehumanizing policies and practices that shape its present relationships, both international and domestic, of its complicity and willingness to destroy our planet, of its (ha!) leadership--I have always considered myself grateful for my citizenship. I don't know that I would have an easier life were I a resident of any other country, were my life magically, analogously transferred, and I do know I would have a harder life in many other countries. Still, I saw a lot of people: men, so many men, staring at me with naked, aggressive curiosity (who are you, where are you from, why is your hair like that, what can I sell you?); children, afraid to touch me but still snatching a hand out to reach for a part of me, because to do so they have created some transgression, done something they know they aren't supposed to do; women, who were bored by me, or curious but hadn't the time, or who smiled at me with ridicule in their eyes about my clothes, my features, my clumsy accent; not once did I think to myself, am I glad I'm not you. 

India felt very different. Strange and unfamiliar, difficult to digest at times. I learned more about myself on this trip than I thought I could, and I'm certain that those lessons will continue to echo and ripple through my heart, my body, my life for a long time to come. I know there are folks who go to India on an annual basis, and while I would like to go again, I don't have a relationship that would put me in India every year (nor do I have the financial capacity, at least not yet, to travel to India every year). That might change. For now, I can say I'm grateful to have gone. I know myself more deeply as a result of my time there. I hope to return, to continue to know this place, with its complex, brilliant, troubled, and remarkable place within the context of our world. May the path of my life return me to this place. 

31 Days of Black Minimalism: Week 2

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or, This sticky spot used to say...

I am not a person who dislikes labels. I label my body, my practice, my time, my mental picture of myself. I value them, I appreciate the power that defining myself for myself (allegedly) brings. And I an acknowledge the smallness of this, the fact that labeling myself just connects me to a way of being that is shallow, or will ultimately pass away. There are some labels I'm comfortable with--vegan, writer, teacher--some I love using personally but don't love the external perception of--wife jumps rather lightly to mind on that list--and there are some labels I dislike entirely.

How do we decide our identity? Do we call ourselves something--black, feminist, evolved, creative, progressive--because we behave that way, or because we simply be that way? Is the definition of our identity, is the label, located in the being, or the doing? My husband (there's another label) insists he is unable to consider himself a feminist because he is a man. The privilege of hid body in our current world cannot be overcome (if such a thing is what we do with privilege overcome it, like an obstacle, instead of use it, like a tool, for the good of others, of all) by the feminist ideals that he has, by how he comports himself in relationships, by which causes he supports and the company he keeps. But I would call him a feminist, based what I know of how he thinks and behave. Because he was born into a male body he asserts he can never be feminist, but he sure can do feminist. So which is it? 

I did not like that the minimalism narrative was a story told by the dominant culture. And to be fair, I think it's not. All it took me was a little effort and a little research and I discovered, if not a narrative that matched my own, at least a present experience that felt similar.

If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
— Audre Lorde

Without shame, I say that a large part of what has helped me into this practice is that Marie Kondo book that the zeitgeist read like, four years ago when it actually came out, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. When that book first dropped, I picked it up in a bookstore all kinds of skeptical. I turned to a page that was discussing, horror of all horrors for a writer, culling your personal library. I read a sentence like, "Let's face it. In the end, you are going to read very few of your books again," and I'm pretty sure I snorted and remarked out loud. A few sentences later, I read, "Keep only those books that will make you happy just to see them on your shelves... that includes this book too. If you don't feel any joy when you hold it in your hand, I would rather you discard it." And I thought, you got it, babe, and closed it and put it back in the stack. Somehow, years later, when I felt called to start letting go of things, I knew that a self-guided spring cleaning wouldn't get the job done, and so I picked it up again, interested to see what kind of resource it might offer. So far, it's been very useful, and I'm not afraid to take it with a grain of salt. 

I want to reclaim the word "minimalism", for myself. I don't like it. I can recall my mother or father occasionally using it to describe some outfit or meal or something that I'd constructed with amusement and a little disdain. When I realized what I was after was deeper than just a spring clean, I started researching minimalism and found a lot of content, written by and featuring white people (frequently men) of wealth and education, who decided they were going to stop throwing money out the window on fancy cars and bottle service and grown-up playground experience, and invest in something real. I tried to watch a Netflix documentary about it, and got about fifteen minutes in before I shut it off.

There is a quality of the way minimalism is narrated and documented that feels trendy, self-righteous, graphic (not like, gratuitous, more like-highly designed in nature). You could play minimalism bingo: capsule wardrobe; in-home/backyard compost bin; wooden, handmade toys for the kiddies; at least one wall in every room unadorned and white, BINGO! While I think this is effective marketing, whatever your platform, I want my expression to come from a more authentic place. Even though I'm documenting this practice, I want it to be grounded. If it is grounded, I know it will endure.

People talk about the lightness and the beauty that is a part of this practice-- Oh, how nice it is to be free of so many things, A man who owns little is little owned, now I can travel all over the world, I fit all  my worldly possessions into these two bags--but what I haven't heard much of is The Struggle. I expected this to be a process of letting go of objects, and it's been that, but it's also been one of letting go of ideals: letting go of labels: letting go of relationships: letting go of illusions about myself. The peeling back and stripping away that is happening inside me feels more sever by an order of magnitude than the letting go of objects. Maybe I haven't heard a lot about this because it's an unusual experience. Or maybe the idea that the things that we've gathered around ourselves are a kind of insulation from feeling what we don't want to feel, and so everyone goes through this but few of us want to talk about it. Because who wants to talk about what they're insulating themselves from: from the scratching, sucking, desiccating specter of poverty; insulation to bolster a false sense of self; insulation to hide from reality (and here we can put all kinds of stuff in our environment to avoid dealing with What Is, from Fox News to the Karsashians (or whatever reality TV y'all are watching) to a never-ending stream of stories and teachings that take us further and further from reality); insulation from the community, with whom we are unwilling to be vulnerable or accountable: we want to feel far from it all, or in control of it all, and so we surround ourselves with stuff.

But not isolating yourself from reality is hard--or rather, willingly choosing to engage with the reality of what is in a way that lives out your integrity. This is hard.

I talk to folks who say, nothing is clean, everything causes cancer, it's impossible to make choices that don't hurt anyone, so why bother, and just chuck in the towel. And I suppose that's a way to go. But values are values. I can choose to value complacency (which sometimes masquerades as ease) and ignorance (which innocently shrugs its shoulders about what's happened) and avoidance (which folks, especially yogi folks, like to pretend is the higher plane they're reaching for, the samadhi which eclipses the suffering others may experience as a result of their willful spiritual practice).

Or I can choose to value integrity, which is inconvenient, and sometimes exhausting, and even painful; and self-study, which if you're really, really willing to do the work, will tell you everything you need to know about everyone all the time; and transformation, which is always impossible to predict, and requires radical, unceasing surrender, and will forever surprise you.

I try to let go of objects ethically, try to release in a way that is responsible, that considers that every object I own doesn't ever really go away, it only transforms, and just because a thing isn't in my hand or room or home doesn't mean it magically dematerializes. It's tough, being confronted with all of the waste I've cultivated, and all of the harm embedded in it. So much of my shopping and purchasing ethic has been informed by the poverty mentality I inherited. (This is a phrase I feel like I hear a lot in the context of this conversation, which, yeah, I feel like is a real, legit thing, but also, I kind of want to roll my eyes at it.) When I pick up a sweater, a volume of poetry a pair of heeled boots, a CD, a tube of mascara, a measuring cup or pair of chopsticks or tube acrylic paint, and discover that none of them bring me joy, a voice inside fights me: but you might need that! What are you going to wear and what will people think? It doesn't matter if you haven't worn/read/used it and never will, it's still perfectly good, you can't part with it.

And I realize that so much of the things I've been keeping aren't really things I cherish, or even like. They're just things I think I have to have in order to live some version of a life that I thought I wanted but don't, or a life that isn't mine, or isn't the life I want it to be. I don't want to be so over-saturated I can't see; I don't want to be so overstuffed I can't feel; I don't want to pretend some label I've assigned myself means I have to express a certain way, walk, talk, dress, adorn or relate a certain way. I want to be free: free to choose the earth beneath my feet and ground into it more powerfully. Free to stay mobile, free to grow too big for confinement of the fear of not having enough; free to choose to ignore the bitter taste of competition for resources; free to release what things (or people or practices) I think are healthy because I've grown accustomed to what is toxic.

I said to a friend recently that I want to be free, and she asked, are you ready to be free? And I was dumbstruck. But after thinking about it, I told her, absolutely, Full-Body-Fuck-Yes, am I ready. There is always a breathless shock, and sometimes a lingering pain, with the newness of growth. But we choose to keep growing. A teacher reminded me that the spiritual practice of liberation means Letting Go in a Major Way, and that it hurts. It's deep working--all the things I'm attached to, all of them are up for grabs, and all if it's being called into question.