Shifting Shapes

 I don’t have the artist information for this sculpture, but i can tell you I saw it at this year’s SOFA Chicago, and they’re represented by Nils Gallery in Paris. They were at stall 301. 

I don’t have the artist information for this sculpture, but i can tell you I saw it at this year’s SOFA Chicago, and they’re represented by Nils Gallery in Paris. They were at stall 301. 

I have flat feet. Like, flat feet. I make rectangles in the sand when I walk, not those cute little seven-shaped footprints. My balance in standing postures is shit. For years, people have offered me advice about what to “do” about my flat feet: I should be wearing shoes with high arches, or shoes with no arches, or no shoes at all; I should engage mulabhanda all the time because my flat feet are due to a collapse that runs from my pelvic floor down my inner thighs, collapses in my ankles and sinks my big toes forward and my arches down; I should stand on this hard rubber ball two minutes a day, per foot. I should tuck my toes under in this pose, press my heels down in that pose. If only I can engage enough and were stronger, lighter, tighter, if only I had enough will, I could change.

This is not a post about asana.

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Man, sometimes this shit is hard to write about.

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As a young woman, I lamented to my mother that I never heard from guys simple sentences, like, hey, I like you. I think you’re smart and funny and cute. Can we go out? “Why won’t a guy just talk to me like a person, why all the game playing and engineering?” I would whine to her. My mother explained that it just doesn’t work that way with men. There’s a dance, a whole litany of unwritten rules that I’m responsible for knowing, and agreeing to play, and not knowing them can result in results for me, often treacherous or capricious because they were being dolled out by beings with fragile egos who don't take rejection well.

For her part, my mother was always trying to dress me better: shorter skirts, tighter jeans, even some lipstick, something to indicate to prospective boyfriends that I had a shape, a body, and was interested in sharing it with them. She was always saying what a “hot little body” I had, and that I should show it off, at school, at work (without sacrificing my professionalism), at church (though be careful here because doing so could cause a man to sin), even going to the grocery school or getting on a plane.

My mother taught me this. A bright woman, seemingly self-possessed of her own power, confidence, and dynamism. And even in her, this rhetoric of dressing for other people is so strong she passed it down to future generations.

Because we teach boys that girls wear red lipstick and tight tops and short skirts because they want you, regardless of how they actually treat you, and we don’t teach them to say, hey, I like you, can we go out, or wow, you say such smart things, I like listening to you talk, and also, I like watching your mouth say such brilliant things, would it be okay if I kissed you. Instead, we teach boys that when a girl dresses a particular way it means you can touch her however you want, her consent be damned.

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I lost my virginity not so much as an act of consent, as an act of resignation. There was no emphatic Yes, but instead I just wearied of saying No. Which just goes to show you: if at first, she won’t put out, try, try again.

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Transformation is a big part of the yoga zeitgeist marketing. 30-day posture challenges, give us THREE WEEKS and watch your ab flab become a ROCK HARD SIX-PACK, your body can be this body. We want to change ourselves, we want to change each other. What’s not a big part of the transformation marketing is how hard change management really is. Some of us are familiar with samskaras, the ditches of habit that live inside us. (No judgement here: the habit of drinking water or choosing a salad over fresh fries or sitting with your mind for 20 minutes a day is a habit just like the pint of ice cream after a tough day or smoking a bowl the moment our coats and shoes are off. The habit of self-reflection borne out of anger is just as real as the habit of defensiveness borne out of anger.) These patterns are deep, carved by repetitive action, by powerful emotions, by family and cultural practices (curses?) arguably by past lives. They don’t just go away after a month of our red x's on the calendar and Instagrammed practice pics.

I’m trying to figure out how we change. How do we define positive change? How do we define rest that is legitimately restorative from rest that indicates collapse, weakness, overextension? How do we clarify the difference between a change that feels exhilarating, empowering, like the freedom of flying, from a change that creates instability, displacement, a quality of feeling deranged? How do we define and identify negative change?

Seems to me the first key here is the pronoun.

We.

The power of community is significant. Some portion of assessing what is transformation that is useful and distinguishing it from transformation that is damaging is the community we collect around us. Sometimes we trust the person or people we have around us—a lover, a trusted friend, a family member—to speak into our lives with compassion and discernment and help us assess if a change we’re making or have made is positive or destructive; sometimes we don’t even know that we need these people to speak into our lives, and they do, and we’re grateful for what they see and how it can help us. Sometimes these dear people see and speak into our lives, and the truth they witness is too hard for us to hold, and we deny it, or lash out at them, or get defensive by attacking their weaknesses instead. 

That feels like a bit of a big deal, right? You gotta know that your community can hold you in love and in truth, because if they’re all caught up in their own bullshit, they’re gonna treat your vulnerability and mistakes like fodder for judgment and abuse, and kick the shit out of you.  Communal accountability isn’t for most of us: Americans love our individualism. We pride ourselves on that hardworking, bootstrap-pulling, sacrifice making, I’ve-worked-hard-to-get-where-I-am-and-now-I-have-come-up-so-don’t-touch-the-shoes-you-might-smudge-them narrative. The idea that anyone can look into our lives and say, hey, this choice you’re making might not be right for you, or right for me or others in our community… that’s a charged and difficult space.

Add the power dynamics of things like race, age, gender and privilege into this community and well, it’s poised to go right to hell, without enough integrity to keep it clean.

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Men around us are failing. They are falling. I feel like I can’t turn around in a circle without seeing another group of folks step into the light about they way they were harmed, assaulted, attacked, or violated by another man. Specifically speaking, I love men: I love my man, I love the men I consider friends, I love the men I am related to, and be sure ALL of them, at some point, have been condescending, patronizing, or even misogynistic. But at this point, I’m not sure I can say about these men, he would never do that to me.

I hate feeling that way. I hate it.

My teacher would say, it’s never outside of yourself, so I have some work to do on my own fear, and freeing from it.

And, it’s a hard time to be a woman right now. Which is to say, it’s always been a hard time to be a woman. Because chastity belts and illegal abortions and the institution of marriage and polygyny* didn’t make this shit any easier.

I talk freely about white supremacy and how embedded it is in our culture (arguably as Americans, but I would say as a planet. I would say that the pervasive, viral, toxic effect of white supremacy that began centuries ago went global a long time ago).

(Listen, I gotta say this: because I talk about white supremacy a lot, it’s important to note that #metoo feels like a surge of shakti borne of the white feminist movement. Black women, women of color, we’ve had #metoo stories for decades. Fuck, our #metoo stories built America. And don't be a trans* woman of color; their #metoo stories are same shit, different day. Don’t misunderstand me: white sisters, share your stories, let the truth be revealed. But make fucking space for the rest of your sisters of color who have been saying “Me, too,” forever, and particularly about white men, while y'all cloak yourselves in your whiteness and abandon us. Don’t keep throwing us under the bus. Ahem, Lena Dunham. (no link here. If you want to know, find it when I'm done.))

Anyway, white supremacy. We carry it, all of us. White supremacy teaches us that there is such a thing as a “model minority”, that respectability politics will save our lives when we get pulled over, that white is a not just a metaphor for pure, clean, righteous and correct. But I am frankly, freaked out by the fruit of toxic masculinity that is ripening right now.

Angry. Fucking exhausted. Freaked out. And also unsurprised. 

Because toxic masculinity, like white supremacy, is a shape-shifter. Sure, the white nationalists are feeling bold given the shitshow at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave (and Congress!), but this shit winds itself in our communities, our systems, our work in the most insidious ways. Though its results and effects are clear and stark, it’s skulking and slithering, and it leaves so much shame in its wake on its victims.

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I was maybe 30 years old. He was… older, a white man my senior by ten years or so. We were colleagues in an interdepartmental training at the art school where I taught creative writing and he taught arts management**. The training was about how we connect our disciplines—art, film, fiction writing, journalism, fashion—to the realities of identity politics: how do we teach tomorrow’s creative moguls to be more culturally literate, to broaden their scope of humanity, to care about how people of color, women, trans people, religious minorities, people on the margins, are portrayed and advanced—or not—in their art forms. It felt like God’s work we were doing. We wanted to help students be better artists, because we know that powerful art touches hearts, and touched hearts change lives, and changed lives change the world.

(I want to point out here, in pursuit of honesty and self-study, that some part of me still feels embarrassed and she is the part that wants to tell you that at this point in my life I was wearing my hair in long locks. It often got me a lot of attention. As if that will explain somehow what happened next. As if patriarchy and white supremacy and toxic masculinity aren’t enough of an explanation all on their own. #internalizedmisogynoir.)

We were in a circle in a common room. Lake Michigan sprawling, cool, distant, beckoned out the window. We were sharing our minds and our hearts, struggling, disagreeing, listening, working. We were in the middle of some kind of kinetic, thought-heavy, idea-driven, language-based musical chairs think-game. I don’t remember what it was. I don’t remember how to play. I only remember that somehow, at some point I was on my feet and he pulled me into his lap. In a room full of people, discussing pedagogy, he pulled me into his lap. I squealed and jumped up, trying not to fall over, avoiding his long legs in hiking boots, hoping that my laughter, the smile on my face, would sufficiently masked the horror that I felt. I didn’t want his attention, I didn’t want his compliments, I didn’t want to sit on his lap and feel his body against mine. I just wanted to talk about how to help my students understand why it was important to build ideas of race equity and gender identity into their stories. I just wanted to talk with fellow educators about how to awaken consciousness in our student artists, and why it was important to do so. And somehow, he undid all that.

Could anyone else in that circle see beneath my desperate urge to go along with things was a deep discomfort at this man’s attention and behavior? Could anyone else see my shame, my discomfort? Could anyone have helped, stepped into the space I couldn't occupy?

I don’t know. I can’t remember. I don’t remember any of the smart or challenging things others said in that workshop. All I remember is that his hands, his actions, his selfishness, stained me with shame.

I’m still washing it out of my hair.

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As a teacher, I work hard at dismantling the power structures in play in the classroom space. Some of them I can’t do much about; but I try to be a human in my classroom. I’m not a greater authority on your practice or your body than you are. I don’t shield my students from my humanity; the more I teach, the more I find teaching to be a kind of exchange of energy. Here’s what I mean: a student who wants to be in class, who wants to study with you and learn with you, will bring out the best in you as a teacher, will ask you to hold space and rise up in your craft, and make you grow. They will bring their baggage into the room, and sometimes the practice (of asana, or writing, or ceramics or statistics or whatever) will help them shed it, and sometimes the practice will cause them to sling that baggage all over the room. They will give off energy, they’ll discharge as they pursue clarity, discovery, and ultimately transformation. My job as a teacher is to hold enough space that they can process and discharge as they need to, without harming others, and without taking their energy, their past, present or future, into myself. I gotta let them work it out, and reflect back what I see, and not let any of that shit stick to me at the end of the day. As teachers, we can hold that energy, but man, we can’t absorb it, and we sure as shit can’t need it. This makes the whole Social Media-Followers-hits-likes nature of our work particularly problematic. (Teachers, this means we gotta guard our prana like its fucking gold, but that’s a post for another day.)

This doesn’t mean that I don’t have issues in the classroom. I struggle with feeling rejected or mistrusted in class; my ego often gets in the way of how I can help others. There’s a lot of work for me to do around holding the boundaries of my role as teacher with integrity, and allowing folks who want less from me to take less from me, without feeling some kind of way about it.

A lot of work.

But because I am a person in leadership in the room (if not power, right, shifting sands of what it means to lead from up front, from behind, quietly, forcefully, etc.), my work is to not draw on the energy the students discharge with any kind of need from them: no matter how sad or lonely, desperate or empty, small or ugly I may feel on a given day/week/season, my job is to offer, to witness, to contain, and then, after all the class is over and all the students have gone, to shed and discharge completely so I can return to my own life and work my own shit out.

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This is not easy work, the work of leadership. Even if the men in our world who are falling like so much timber were actually clean, had their own shit sorted so that they didn’t have to prey on women and folks, it would still be hard. But the sheer volume of dudes—fuckin’ dudes—who are being revealed as harassers, as predators, as assailants makes it clear that this isn’t just about this dude or that dude not dealing with his narcissism or insecurity or inadequacy (though there is no shortage of that, damn). It’s about the systems of power, of white supremacy, of toxic masculinity, that have perpetuated this damage and harm for centuries and across cultures. Systems this destructive require systemic change, and anger without direction doesn’t create change, it creates cathartic chaos.

We’re still at the bomb-throwing point of this revolution, a reactive stage at which nuance can go into hiding. But while anger can start a revolution, in its most raw and feral form it can’t negotiate the more delicate dance steps needed for true social change.
— TIME magazine, Person of the Year 2017 (see link above)

Some of us believe in the righteous, cleansing power of anger. Like fire. I believe in this. I also believe that anger untreated with direction, without vision and compassion and forgiveness, will harden and atrophy us into gnarled, incomplete versions of ourselves that no amount of practice will make soft and supple.

Sisters: you are angry. Me, too. (see what I did there?) I am angry with you. Be angry. Be angry as long as you need to, and not one moment longer. Do not be imprisoned by your anger. Do not lose track of the humanity of your assailant in your anger. Much as your pain and disappointment wants to paint him as a monster, don’t do it. That’s the easy thing to do, that’s the collapse into anger. Instead of collapsing into anger, ride it like a wave, and hold onto the idea that that totally fucked-up thing that he did hasn’t made him inhuman. More fucked-up, without question, and maybe even less human. He has earned the consequences of his deplorable, violent behavior. But he's not inhuman; for to lose track of his humanity is to lose a larger part of your own humanity, and nothing good comes of that. You aren’t helped, he isn’t helped, and equally important, that cycle of psycho-sexual vampirism is just perpetuated into the next generation. I am not telling us to calm down, that we're being hysterical, or overreacting. I'm saying that all of the shitty experiences we've had at the hands of dudes doesn't let us off the hook of doing our own svadhyaya

Brothers: Fuck getting your house in order, burn that shit down and start from scratch, because the shit you have "built" is fucking unacceptable. Evaluate every conversation you have had. Apologize. Mean it. Control yourself. Grow up. Ask first. Ask first, motherfucker, and back the fuck up if we say no. You know that fear you’re feeling, realizing that the sisters have had it with being your fucking doormats and holes in mattresses and objects for sadistic amusement and destruction? That fear we live with every day: in staff meetings and on the subway and on the street and in the break room and the elevator and the classroom. Examine the systems that you’ve created that gave birth to this, and realize that because you haven’t destroyed the shit, we’re doing it for you. We have fucking had it.

Sisters&Brothers&Folks: Let us promise ourselves, and maybe one another, that after the anger has burned off, and the fear has subsided enough that we can take few deep breaths, that we will build something better: systems of education, of shared work, of government and community leadership, systems that are rooted in transparency, equity, compassion and accountability. We need it. Our kids need it, and our kids’ kids. It is time for positive, systemic change, change that happens in community. The world is groaning underneath the pressure of our viral, selfish systems. I refuse to believe that we are so far gone that we can’t return from the destructive, deplorable usury that defines how we treat each other. I have to: radical hope is our best weapon.

 

 

*polygyny is the practice of having more than one wife. Polygamy is gender neutral.

**this isn’t true. I'm telling a true story because it feels relevant. But don't get distracted about who this guy is. Knowing who he is really isn't worth your time, and it isn't my point.