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. 

#31DaysofBlackMinimalism: Week 1

or, you're hiding all kinds of shit in there, Jess.

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I open my closet and there, among the heeled boots and the bridesmaids dresses and the holey jeans and the yards and yards and yards of scarves, waits my mother. She is suspended about a foot off the floor, hanging against the shoe rack I have on the back of the closet door. Her brown eyes are bright and mirthful. “Shelly,” she says, “you can’t get rid of your heels, girl! What will you wear to dress up?” I sigh and turn my back to her. 

She’s shoved in between my wedding gown and a stack of maxi dresses, one hand gripping the white wire rack where my clothes are hanging. She holds up an emerald green satin gown. “Listen, I know you haven’t worn this gown since Julie’s wedding, but it’s beautiful! Look at the bias cut, and the back line is so sexy. You might wear this again!” 

“Mother, leave me alone,” I say and yank boxes of sweaters off a shelf.  

“Jessica, you can’t get rid of sweaters, you live in Chicago.”  Her voice is muffled: I pull two three four sweaters out of the box, and her head and shoulders are at the bottom of the box. She wants to reach an arm out to me but the box is too small, and she is wiggling. "Now, you know how cold it gets here, it's irresponsible of you to get rid of so many clothes! What are you thinking? What about folks who don't have sweaters? How is this going to help them, huh?"

I dump the sweaters back on top of her face and shove the box back on the shelf. 

*

At the end of Week One of documenting what feels like a slow build toward a change in lifestyle, I realize that I've never thought of cultivating the space around me in terms of what I value, what I want, how do I want to feel in that space. Historically, I've kept and selected things based on what looks good, what will make my home look the way I want it to look, what would be wise to keep, and I haven't thought at all about whether or not an aesthetic, an object, a practice (of space, of living in space) reflects my values. It feels kinda... revolutionary.

Going through every object I own, I'm learning that not only am I reevaluating the things that I own, but the way I own them, the way I buy things, and the way I was taught to buy, to live. The idea of my home space and ownership of objects, as not just a metaphor but an example of how my values, my ideals, and my desires are realized: it's revealing a lot and it's changing a lot.

Anybody who has survived his childhood had enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.
— Flannery O'Connor

There is a lot of anger in the reflections of my childhood. My mother's anger, a robust, embodied rage that came out of all sides of her, at anyone near enough to really know her--generally just my father and me--white hot, sharp as a katana sword, that would fillet you fast and leave you breathless; my father's anger, seldom displayed, heavy, a kind of threat on the wind used to strike fear into my heart, hard and solid like a mace, not as deft as my mother's anger (due to my father's complex emotional landscape, still a mystery to me), but still damaging nonetheless; and my own anger: blunt, unskilled, leaking out of me at odd, askance angles due to the nature of being a child at battle with two adults, and therefore never really allowed to say the things or strike the blows that equate with an adequate defense.

There was a log of anger, and a lot of fear. I was raised in a family of privilege: I am from an affluent, educated, solidly middle-class (or at least, it seemed so to me, which I recognize is a privilege in an of itself), Midwestern black American family. There was no Jack & Jill membership, no cleaning lady or accountant or gardener, no no cotillion or coming-out ball, but "ain't" and “fitten’ to” and “nigga” we’re as banished in the house I was raised in as cut-off shorts. 

Like so many middle class black American families, my family had indicators to prove we were well-off. A house, unattached to others around it, with a garage attached, not in the back or in some alley; a lush green yard that needed raking or cutting in order to stay presentable; a living room and a family room each with its own set of furniture, for company and for casual relaxation respectively; not one, but two sets of encyclopedia (that were almost never used, by design); an upright piano, used painted pea-soup green with cracked keys, but in-tune enough for lessons that ended when I started high school; even a separate freezer for storing half-gallons of vanilla ice cream or orange sherbet, or plastic containers full of greens and hamhocks, or chitlins, made by my grandmother and brought home every Christmas.

The fear you couldn't see. Fear of being recognized, found out, discovered for what my parents really were: the son and daughter of poor black people who had fled the South, in one case, only one generation before. Being poor and black cast in America casts a long shadow. To my mom and dad the poverty clung like a film that could never quite be washed off, like a sour smell the source of which they could never quite find and destroy: but if they were neat and clean and presentable, perhaps it would go unnoticed, perhaps they could pass as decent, hardworking, respectable people, and this perception would perhaps free them from the terrifying, sometimes joyous, always harder-than-it-should-be struggle of trying to stay black and alive and provide for their kid.

Their anger and their fear had consequence, to be certain. I am still discovering, and still healing. And if you read this, and think that I am ashamed of them, or that I seek to shame them, then you aren't paying attention.

*

My parents dealt with this fear of this specter of black poverty a number of different ways. They educated themselves, and they worked. My mother is ambitious--another reality I acknowledge without shame, is the beauty and power of ambitious women--and so she got as many degrees and took as many jobs as her energy and health would allow her.  My father is diligent, and so he bent his knees, dropped his shoulder, and went to work. So far as I know he's worked for the same company for almost my entire life.

A dogged, tireless, bitterly cheerful work ethic is something they have in common. Where they differ is in the handling of the dough.

My father saves. He sees clouds gathering on the horizon, sometimes real, sometimes imaginary, and he saves. He hoards. He stockpiles, and wears things until they are threadbare and holey, and he never needs new things, by which I mean he often needs new things, but considers that even though his clothes don't fit or are showing wear, they are "perfectly good." When we would shop together and I would proffer an object--toy, book, article of clothing--I wanted to buy, he would ask, "do you need it?" which I took to communicate, Jessica, will this item help to feed/clothe/educate/shelter you in a way that has been heretofore absent? The answer was always no, even when sometimes the answer was yes, and I would put it back, my chest thick with longing.

Not so with my mother. My mother does not save, she spends. A bad day for either of us would find us at the Dairy Queen or McDonald's or later, at the mall. I loved buying clothes with her because the decision to purchase wasn't based on whether or not I needed something, but on whether or not it was cute, or how it made me feel, or how good I looked in it. Choosing things that were pretty pretty, that meant pretty, that "made me/us feel pretty" was a space of bonding. Each of us felt vulnerable int he context of adorning our bodies for different reasons, my own considerably less enigmatic and unique than I thought. Shopping took that vulnerability and transformed it, empowered us both with beauty that lasted just long enough for the tags to come off and the return window to close.

*

I don't know if other people feel the values and ideals of their parents and upbringing as strongly embedded in their bodies and surroundings as I do. I often feel I am alone in this feeling: everyone else has already exorcised the clinging possessive succubi of their upbringing, the rest of us are entirely conscious of our wounds and how they reenact in our present lives, and I'm the only one with work to do. But this need to reevaluate, which leads to shedding obsolete behaviors and ideas, happens over and over and over again. First is was in my religious beliefs and practices, then in my job and career path, then in my choice of partner and nature of relationship, and now, far from my parents but still hearing them closely in their sown seeds, I find myself choosing differently how to build a home, how to spend and save money, how to keep and release objects. It's both exhilarating and exhausting. I feel as though the excavation of my self will never end, and indeed, it won't. I'll just keep uncovering samskara after samskara, reflecting on pattern after pattern, and asking over and over, why are you doing this, how is it serving you?

I'm buckled in. I'm ready. I can breathe deeply enough to tolerate anything.

31 Days of Black Minimalism

My friend Ari is so much smarter than me. 

I've been asking myself lately why I shop so frequently--by no means a problem, I'm not carrying mounds of debt, but we are living paycheck to paycheck, and I routinely buy more than I need--and I've come up with, I want to feel pretty. Shopping makes me feel pretty, in a way that dressing or adorning does not. Note: it's not actually the act of wearing the dress/scarf/lipstick/shoes/sweater/ring/eyeliner I've purchased, nor is it even putting it on (and heaven forbid it be taking it off and just existing in the body I was born into, naked, proud, beautiful, though maybe some days a bit chilly); it is the act of purchasing the item that actually makes me feel pretty. It's the promise of beauty, delight, magic, that is made when I hold the object in my (sometimes digital, sometimes flesh-and-bone) hand and give over some semblance of legal tender, and then it's mine. And the half-life of how pretty I might be in/with the object has instantly passed, because time is like this.

I tell her this, and I don't assume anything is off about this. I don't assume that I'm pretty with or without the dress/scarf/shoes etc., or that I'm being manipulated, or anything other than pretty really is out there and not in here, and that I don't see my own Pretty independent of the object. And Ari nods at me, and she says,

"Capitalism wants us to feel so bad about ourselves."

And my mind is blown for the rest of the day.

*

Growing up, my mother told me I was lazy. And messy.

Among other things I am releasing, I am practicing letting go of the lies that I believed about myself that I learned from my mother. Well-meaning, logical, evocative, but dishonest nonetheless. 

I weary easily. I have values that are different from the values my mother holds. And I believe my whole life, I have had more than I needed. I have had too much, and no place to put it all.

*

I'm not sure where it started, but I find myself in the grip of a major episode of purging. Of letting go. The word episode feels wrong, because it connotes a temporary quality of the experience I'm having or the story I'm telling. This doesn't feel temporary. This doesn't feel like a phase or an episode; this feels like a pivot. My Mister says the kids are using the phrase "Inflection point", borrowed from mathematics and applied to all kinds of things, to describe a sharp turn in a different direction. It feels like that. 

Maybe it started in India. Maybe it started with veganism, in my silver Hyundai on I-65, or later in my small apartment in Dearborn Park. Maybe it started when I read Marie Kondo, which was two years after everyone else read her. Maybe it started with the Sri Sukta. I don't know, and there will be time to consider all this and more. But for now, let me say this:

whenever I travel, I return home and feel tight and uncomfortable about how much I feel I have changed, relative the inflexibility of my space, my world. It is one of the most difficult sensations for me to navigate. I struggle with it. I came home from the Indian subcontinent this spring, and felt the change in seasons (coming closer, despite the Chicago weather telling me otherwise), and the inflexibility of my home, and the need for detoxification, and for purge, release. And then, as I started to consider What It Really Is to live an intentional life, a life where how I invest my time, money, energy, skill set, is something I actually think about, I started looking around and noticed that the corner of conversation around... sigh, pardon me, minimalism*, is largely occupied by white cis men. 

Listen, I have no problem with white cis men. Some of my best friends are white cis men. I also find that right now, I'm less interested in their narrative of history, of past or future, than perhaps I ever have been.

The narrative of minimalism, so far as I've read it, (which is not much, I claim no scholarly knowledge of this subject/movement/insert noun here) seems dominated by dudes from the dominant culture who made buckets of money by their 30th birthday, and then realized happiness wasn't to be found at the bottom of another bottle/gaming system/line of blow/anonymous hookup/joy ride/done deal/expensive suit. This is not my narrative. I don't know shit about that story. And I knew that I was in this story somewhere.

So I kept digging, and I found some minimalists of color. Folks who are exploring what it is to make intentional choices about spending, consuming, choosing, and releasing, with a knowledge of the history of oppression in America, equity and income disparity, in short who talk about minimalism with an understanding of privilege, personal and systemic. 

And I decided that because the corner is small, I want to be a part of the conversation.

So:

#31DaysofBlackMinimalism

I'm not about absenting or excluding, myself or others. I'm not about judging the choices of others. But I am about interrogating this urge within myself deeply, and exploring what it is to live with less, and what it brings up for me, and what it has to teach me. 

  • Starting today, I'll post a photo on my Instagram account daily, sharing a little image around what's on my mind.
  • Starting today, I'll post once a week (?!) here and write a little more deeply about some of what's coming up.

I'm excited to see where this is going. This isn't a blog about minimalism. This is a blog about where yoga intersects race, culture, and identity, and how I engage with that. I'm hopeful that I'll keep digging into that over the next four weeks. 

Join me. 

 I recently took a tea and meditation workshop, and now the practice of brewing tea is blowing my mind.

I recently took a tea and meditation workshop, and now the practice of brewing tea is blowing my mind.

* I’m not in love with this word. It feels like such a label, and I can’t use it freely yet. Maybe part of this time will be me reclaiming it.