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Shiva

Photo by the amazing Jade Beall. Taken July 5, 2013.

Photo by the amazing Jade Beall. Taken July 5, 2013.

 

Śiva (ˈshi-və, ˈshē-)  n.  one of the principal Hindu deities, worshiped as the destroyer and restorer of worlds and in numerous other forms. Shiva is often conceived as a member of the triad also including Brahma and Vishnu.

 

Shiva is a god of contradiction. He is the destroyer, who incinerates the world as it is, and the creator, who transforms the world out of the ashes. He is the ultimate ascetic, abstaining from all worldly pleasures, and he is the dedicated lover and husband to Shakti/Parvati, the intensity of their love quaking the earth. He is the practiced yogi sitting calmly in meditation with no distraction and the dancer trembling his limbs furiously, his movements destroying and remaking the world.

 

He is, in many ways, all of us. He models the ways in which we defy categorization and solidity, each of us shifting and changing over time, letting go—with acquiescence or with fighting—of that which no longer serves us and making room for that which does.

 

For as long as I can remember, I have internalized the words “I am not a dancer.” This, despite that the fact that I love dancing. This, despite the fact that the sound of music and particularly the rhythmic beat of drumming is what makes me feel most myself and most alive. After quitting ballet at six and auditioning for and not making the cut for several dance teams during my time in adolescence, I decided that this was not an identity I could own. I could dance peripherally, at weddings and, if I was not too demonstrative, at clubs. I allowed myself hip sways and arms held in the air when I danced to brass bands back home in New Orleans. Over the years, I increasingly gave myself more permission to dance. But I did not allow myself the moniker dancer.

 

Rumi said, “Whosoever knoweth the power of the dance, dwelleth in God.”

 

 

Dancing Shiva

Dancing Shiva

 

 

Another manifestation of Shiva is as Nataraja or The Lord of Dancers. Shiva holds the world in balance and this is seen too in his dancing. In Tandav, the cosmic dance of death, he dances to destroy the universe. Peter Marchand and Christine Gruenwald write, “Shiva Nataraja’s dance represents both the destruction and the creation of the universe and reveals the cycles of death, birth, and rebirth….Under his feet, Shiva crushes the demon of ignorance called Apasmara Purusha, caused by forgetfulness. One hand is stretched across his chest and points towards the uplifted foot, indicating the release from earthly bondage of the devotee. The fire represents the final destruction of creation, but the dance of the Nataraja is also an act of creation, which arouses dormant energies and scatters the ashes of the universe in a pattern that will be the design of the ensuing creation.” On the night of Shiva workship, devotees honor him by imitating him: singing songs in his praise and dancing all night rhythm of the drums.

 

Last fall, I started going to African dance classes in Tucson. As a white woman born and raised in New Orleans, a still deeply segregated city, I had strong hesitations to attend out of worries of appropriation of a dance that was not from my ancestry. I went with these hesitations and concerns, which still remain as part of the process, but I stayed because of the drums, because there was something about these drums and this dance that propelled me, not only across the floor but into a more complete and authentic version of myself.

 

Still, in those first few classes, I held myself back. I told stories about how I didn’t belong there, about how the other dancers were so much better than me, about how I was making a fool out of myself, about the lack everyone could clearly see in my body and in my movements. But around my third class, the stories quieted down. I could see the stories for what they were: irrelevant and untrue. The deepest truth was that I love being there. That I love dancing. And this love and this love alone made me into the thing I could not call myself before. Only when I destroyed the story that I was not a dancer was I able to really dance.

 

I used to think it was important to preserve containment at all costs. I believed that to avoid any kind of spillage or cracks or breakage was to make myself safe. But in the past several years, I have realized the vitality that comes from things breaking apart. I see that it is only this breaking that allows for new forms to take shape, for new breath to be invited in. From the ashes can rise new ways of being that would have never appeared while the old ways were immaculately intact.

 

July 5 was my birthday. For a few years, I’ve had a tradition of bibliomancing, randomly and blindly selecting, words from a dictionary on my birthday. To me, this feels like a way to honor my birthday and to invite in any messages or words that may be helpful in this new journey around the sun.

 

This year, I used a Pictorial Webster’s Pocket Dictionary just given to me for my birthday from my friend Amelia. The picture I turned to depicts Lord Shiva, Hindu god of destruction and transformation. That I turned to his image—when I could have easily turned to “Sequoia,” the page before, or “Skeleton of Dinosaurs,” the page after—feels significant and fitting. For years, I have listened to my yoga teacher talk about the ways different gods and goddesses are allies in the path. And I see these gods and goddesses as helpers, as models, as examples of the ideas and concepts they represent. Shiva, like Kali, can be given a bad rap because he brings powerful destructive forces. But as I understand it, these forces are sent to destroy the attachments our ego clings to, the ones we no longer need. In getting rid of attachments that limit us, we make room and create spaciousness for the most fluid and most authentic version of ourselves to emerge. Shiva encourages us to destroy, to dissolve, to deconstruct in order to make way for more genuine creation.

 

Shiva may be capable of destruction but he also wants to give offerings, to save lives. Shiva is almost always depicted with blue skin from the myth in which he saves humanity by holding in his throat poison that was churned in waters and threatened womankind and mankind. Shiva is painted carrying a trident, the three tips representing creation, protection, and destruction of the universe. Shiva is seen as a source of both evil and good, of destruction and rebirth. In his embodiment, he shows us the light and dark contained in this world and within each of us. He shows us the capacity to hold it all.

 

 

Shiva statue in Bangalore, Karnataka, India

Shiva statue in Bangalore, Karnataka, India

 

I have a Rumi of the Day book that I read from each morning before I sit in meditation. And each year on my birthday, I am struck by the poem for July 5. However, the time and distance of a year gives me time to forget and then to appreciate it anew. In “The Tree of Awe,” Rumi acknowledges the inherent contradiction of life’s joy and suffering and the necessity of both light and darkness. He writes, “No matter how fast you run, your shadow more than keeps up. Sometimes it’s in front. Only full, overhead sun diminishes your shadow. But that shadow has been serving you. What hurts you blesses you.” And “Darkness is your candle. Your boundaries are your quest.” And “You must have shadow and light source both.”

 

We may think we want only full brightness, but I can tell you from recent experience of 109 degree heat and high humidity in Tucson, that sometimes shade is most welcome. Sometimes we need the shadow to appreciate the beauty and warmth of the light.

 

When I dance now, I do so because the dance is in me and wants out. Instead of self-consciousness, I come to dance with a deep appreciation for those around me and for this life and for this body that carries me through it. Some days I dance to burn off old stories and some days I dance in appreciation and honor of the beauty in my life.

 

I am grateful to Shiva for appearing on my birthday to remind me of the power of destroying and razing and of renewing and recreating. These are the makings of a life, and I am grateful to experience both the light and dark offered in mine.

 

 

 

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de·cap·i·tate

IMG_8294

Washington, D.C., Lisa O’Neill

 

Phoenix, Lisa O'Neill

Phoenix, Lisa O’Neill

 

Detroit, Lisa O'Neill

Detroit, Lisa O’Neill

 

de·cap·i·tate (di-ˈka-pə-ˌtāt)  v. behead

 

The word architect comes from the Middle French architecte, from Latin architectus, from Greek arkhitekton “master builder, director of works,” from arkhi- “chief” + tekton “builder, carpenter.” An Old English word for it was heahcræftiga “high-crafter.”

 

To be an architect is to use your mind to conceive of bodies, buildings, frameworks. It is to see how objects could align, could fit together. To be an architect is to construct a dwelling made of many parts.

 

Structures are about foundations and support and design. They are also about absence. They are about what is contained and what is uncontainable.

 

Last night, I saw two improvisational dance groups perform: The Movement Salon and The Architects. A dozen years ago, I would have been dismissive of improvisational dance—much as I was of abstract painting or performance art. I would have sat there making myself miserable as I picked apart what was wrong with art created in the moment, without “preparation” or “process.” I would not have thought about all the process and preparation that went into being ready to construct something in and of the moment.

 

But much has happened over the last twelve years, so tonight I was in awe. I was deeply moved and lightened and full of gratitude. Here’s why: because improvisational dance is not only amazing to watch: the spontaneity, the interplay of the performers, the moments of synchronicity in movement, song, speech. The experience of improvisational dance provides amazing practice for life. Life requires risk and being vulnerable. Life requires presence in the moment and paying close attention to the actions, movements, needs, bodies, thoughts, feelings of all those around you. Life can have you laughing one minute and crumpled on the floor the next. Life is made in the living, no matter our designs or plans. Life contains multitudes.

 

After the performance, some friends and I, one of them a performer, were having a conversation about the show. I shared what came up for me while watching. That we—okay, I’m going to take out the safe plural pronoun—I can live my life so contained. I am often measuring myself. How small do I need to be in a given situation? How large a space am I allowed? It’s as if I’m on a rollercoaster and must keep my limbs inside, as per the instructions. Only instead of just my limbs, my emotions, thoughts, opinions, heart, and mind must be contained as well. How little can I be to make myself safe?

 

But how limiting is that? How constrictive?

 

These performers embodied expansiveness. They committed to their movements, to their words, to their interaction with one another. They stomped on the floor. They slid across. They took one another’s hands. They lept from one side of the stage to the other. They cracked jokes. They sang. They plucked strings and then led the bow across them.

 

Many people in my life have told me about the process of growing a bigger container, to hold the richness and fullness of life: the light and the dark, the weightlessness and the gravity.

 

“We have an expression we use all the time,” my performer friend said, “Even when you are out, you are in.”

 

Even when choosing to push yourself into the corner of the stage.

 

Even when you aren’t moving.

 

Even when your voice is a whisper.

 

You are in.

 

The only decision is whether we acknowledge that we are.

 

To live is to be vulnerable, regardless of what we tell ourselves. No matter how many barriers we construct, no matter how small we make ourselves, we will face pain, suffering, rejection. But we do get to decide whether or not we reject ourselves. We get to choose how small or big we are. It’s the difference between folding our arms tightly across our chests or stretching our arms wide.

 

When I was in my mid-twenties and going through a particularly shitty period of my life, my younger cousin sent me a card she had made with a painting of a girl outlined in black and colored in red. But instead of the red being contained within her figure, it spilled outside. Across the top, she had painted: “Some passions are uncontainable.” Inside the card, she told me the girl was me. That is maybe the best compliment anyone has ever given me.

 

I want to spill over, to spill out, under, through. I want to live my life in a way that when I’m done, I will have spent it. I will have left this earth with heart, mind, body used up. No more paint in the tube. No more tea in the cup. No more pennies in the jar.

 

We can live in our heads, constantly marking and processing how to be in any given situation. Or we can choose to fill up a space with our entire bodies, to be all in. We are the master builders, the high-crafters of our lives. We have the materials. We have the time. We have all the space we allow ourselves. The only question is: what will we build?

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vis·i·to·r·i·al

vis·i·to·r·i·al  /viz′i tôr′ē əl/  a. [f. prec. or VISIT v.: see –IAL.] = VISITATORIAL I.

vis·i·ta·to·ri·al  /viz′i tə tôr′ē əl/ a. [f. prec.  +  -IAL, or f. med. L visitatorisu visitatory + -AL.] 1. Of, pertaining to, or connected with, an official visitor or visitation  2. Having the power of official visitation; exercising authority of this kind.

vis·i·ta·tion /vi-zə-ˈtā-shən/ n. 1. The act or an instance of visiting or an instance of being visited: rules governing visitation at a prison.  2. An official visit for the purpose of inspection or examination, as of a bishop to a diocese.  3. The right of a parent to visit a child as specified in a divorce or separation order.  4. a. A visit of punishment or affliction or of comfort and blessing regarded as being ordained by God.  b. A calamitous event or experience; a grave misfortune.  5. The appearance or arrival of a supernatural being.  6. Visitation Roman Catholic Church a. The visit of the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth.  b. May 31, observed in commemoration of this event.

I have being thinking of what it means to visit a lot lately. Every week, I visit three detention centers to facilitate creative writing classes. I watch as family members and friends check in to visit their loved ones through the impersonality of computer screens at jail. I check in at the “professional visitation” desk. I get my badge. I walk through a metal detector and a security checkpoint. I press a button to unlatch the massive metal door. I hear the ka-chunk of the door slamming behind me. And am I there.

But I am clearly a visitor in this space. I wear no uniform and walky-talky. I’m not in orange. I am not behind bars.

In juvenile detention, I go through a similar procedure. Lately, I am not allowed to bring in a bag so I carry my books and papers and supplies in with me in my arms. As with a visit to a friends, I bring some food to share, chocolate chip cookies and hot Cheetos. The girls were disappointed last week when I didn’t bring snacks so I certainly wasn’t going to come empty handed this week.

When I arrive in the pod, they see me with a Safeway bag.

“You brought snacks?”

“I did.” And I smile.

“Hot Cheetos?”

“Yes.”

“And cookies.”

“Yes, those too.”

For the day, I have planned to talk about music, art, writing and ask the girls what impact these things have on them. Do these artistic outlets have the capacity to heal our community? Ourselves?

I have them look at black and white images and write about them. Then we read poetry from other classes. When we write again, I ask them to either consider the question about art, music and writing or this one:

How do you find positivity in your life when there seems to be only negative around you?

Walking around, I stop to check in with one of the girls, who wrote a poem last week about traditions in her Native American culture. She is writing about positive and negative.

“Want to read what I have so far?” she asks.

She is talking about how when she is in a negative space, she gets mad at people for no reason. Sometimes, she says, she feels as if she doesn’t deserve a better life.

The paragraph about finding the positive is just two sentences so far.

“What do you mean by this?” I ask, “that you don’t deserve a better life.”

She tells me that sometimes she is overwhelmed by her mistakes and doesn’t think she deserves something better. We talk about how all of us have unique things to offer and I ask her about what she grounds herself in, what is one of the gifts she has.

“My culture,” she tells me. “I come from strong cultural traditions being Native. And the spirituality and traditions are really important to me.”

“Great,” I tell her. “That’s so great. Try writing about that.”

Later, although she is soft-spoken, she is eager to share her writing with the group. But when she begins to read the positive part, about the importance of her culture, she begins to cry. The girls in the circle all send her compassionate looks. Keep going, they say.

She finishes and says that it is so hard. That a lot of cultures have their language but her community doesn’t speak it anymore. There is so much alcoholism and in adults and so much early death among the children.

“It is so painful,” she says.

Later the same day, I go to an event sponsored by Coalición de Derechos Humanos, where artists, poets and musicians are sharing their responses to the SB 1070 bill. The final group to perform is a group of Native American dancers. The adults wear feather headdresses and large anklets made of shells around their ankles. The children wear white shirts and shorts and red bands around their heads. A drummer, a man with long braids, provides the rhythm for their dancing, which was beautiful.

I stand close to the drum and I can feel the beat within my body. In a break between dances, the lead dancer stops to talk about their presence there.

“We, like many indigenous peoples, do not have a word for owning the earth or property because we do not believe Mother Earth is something that can be owned. So we do not believe in people being stopped from going where they want to go, living where they want to live.”

I think about her words. Much of the talk surrounding the bill, even amongst those who oppose it, surrounds immigration reform: reforming the way we allow immigrants into our country. But what this woman is suggesting is that immigrants to this country do not need our invitation to be here. They, she says, have every bit as much right to be here as we do.

I wonder too how hard it must be for Native peoples to constantly find the larger culture in which they live in so in conflict with the believes at the core of their community. They find themselves having to buy homes or cars, to sign documents of ownership. They live oftentimes on reservations, the specific (often non ideal) land that the government has told them they own. This land, but not the rest. It must be hard to live divided.

I think then about the girl in detention and the struggles of her community. I think of her immense pride in her community and the way she was so sensitive to the suffering of people in her culture and to the potential loss of their way of life. The fact that it is so important to her and that she believes so strongly in its value is so key, and I told her so. But that fact does not do away with the pain and suffering, with grieving a tragic loss.

No matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, we are all visitors to the very ground we stand on. It doesn’t matter how much we try to make ourselves and our lives permanent—through deeds to houses, through buying furniture, through having babies, through building massive, strong buildings, through making art. The truth is that our lives have an expiration date. We are visitors to this earth.

And as visitors we have a responsibility to not act like the houseguests from hell, like we are sometimes prone to do. We need to bring our gifts to the table. We need to be polite and generous to our host. We need to leave the home not having left a negative mark on it, but instead, having made it better or more alive with our presence.

Standing just next to one of the dancers was a boy, who was maybe three or four. He wore a Spiderman t-shirt and shorts and he was moving, trying to follow the dancers best he could. I saw the round shape of his eyes that indicated that most likely this boy has Down-Syndrome. I wondered if the dancer he was next to, a beautiful woman with a brown-feathered headdress, was his mother. He was dancing, off rhythm sometimes and often almost running into the woman next to him or the other dancers. But he wasn’t shooed away. The attitude of the dancers was one of total acceptance and love. He belonged there, I thought. And the dancers were allowing him to be where he belonged.

*I have decided to begin attaching relevant links to the dictionary word of the week when appropriate. Related to “visitorial”: Read Suzanne Rivecca’s short story “look ma, i’m breathing” from death is not an option

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