Category Archives: bodily movement

This New Year, Be Surprised!

December 31 — at midnight — is a moment when many of us celebrate the ending of one year and the beginning of another.

This celebration is arbitrary. We could theoretically celebrate the new year on any day or moment of our orbit around the sun. Throughout human history, there have been many systems for tracking this path. Our pattern of days, months, and years is only one of them. In fact, it is one so precariously layered over our planetary course that it requires a full-day adjustment every four years in order to fit.

Realizing the arbitrary nature of this celebration’s timing doesn’t bother me in the slightest. It prompts me to remember why the celebration is important. How we measure time shapes our experience of reality. It structures our sense of rhythm, plots patterns of crescendo and decrescendo and so too, creates moments of heightened intensity – thresholds – where we tap and exercise this human power to make time itself. We look backward and reflect; we look forward and predict; we look around and resolve to do better.

New Year’s Eve is one of these moments – a point of passing through that gives us access, not to the new year, but to our own participation in the course of our lives. It is a time to pivot, past and future, inward and outward, left and right, and all around; a time to celebrate the Best of 2018 and What to See 2019. It is a time of making resolutions for when to begin, how to pay attention, and what to do with ourselves.

This crossing into a new year creates another opportunity as well – to open to surprise.

Every year, our family has a tradition that I have written about before. As part of this ritual, we write letters to ourselves that we intend to read on the final day of the following year. After having engaged in this exercise for several years, I realize that so often, the moments that gave a year its magic and meaning were happenings I could never have imagined when I had written my letter a year before.

Every year is full of surprises. People appear and events occur that change the course of your life – cracking you open to thoughts, feelings, and sensations you did not know were possible, propelling you head-long into new directions of inquiry, investment, and activity.

New Year’s Eve is a time to remember the wonder, the mystery, the deep creativity of a universe that is constantly tossing itself together in new patterns of possible movements.

It may provoke fear to think about the possibility of surprise. Some surprises are unwelcome — injury, illness, heartache, disappointment, and death. In the course of a year, no human can escape the hurt that comes with being a bodily self who lives in relationship with other bodily selves, sustained in every moment by an earth whose matrix of swirling forces we cannot control. In this sense, such unwelcome events are not surprises. They are inevitable.

What is not inevitable, however, are surprises that burst your heart open to love life more than you ever have or ever thought possible. What is not inevitable is whether you sense and respond.

New Year’s Eve is a time to remember to stay alert to the possibility of surprises that will astound you with their grace and goodness.

It is a time to empty your sensory self, breathe your feet down to the ground, lift your heart, and walk forward, attuned to what may appear around the next bend to nourish the best in you, and bring it forth in actions of genuine connection with yourself and others.

It is a time is to realize that your greatest accomplishments in the coming year may come not from what you resolve to do, but from what you welcome into your life, even when it seems unlikely, implausible or impractical.

These kinds of surprises come in all shapes and sizes – a new person or animal; a natural vista or adventure; a new job, idea, or skill; a theater performance, musical, movie, concert or book. These surprises come in moments so inspiring that they bend your thoughts, hold your heart, and trouble your peace for longer than you imagined they would. They come in moments when the sensation of living strikes deep enough that you find your course turning, your horizons shifting, as you welcome more of who you are into your life.

So this New Year’s Eve, as you chart a path, plot your projects, and resolve to move with fervor and intention, remember too to stay open to the mystery beyond the time you can measure and mark – beyond what you can see and imagine. Be surprised!


Winter’s Life-Affirming Dance — And the Genius of Martha Graham

I walk outside for morning chores. The flashing of sun on the snow sends signals that my retina instantly reads as distress. SOS — Sun On Snow. Without warning, my eyelids clamp shut. Darkness. I try to lift my lids. When I fail, I surrender and stop. Chilled air splashes my cheeks, slaps my forehead awake and stings the edges of my nose. I smell cold air, cold hay, a cold barn in the distance. I smile, because I am warm, bulked up with so many layers that I waddle like a penguin. I dare the cold to try to steal my inner heat. Squinting to admit the tiniest sliver of light, I plow on through a landscape luminous and sparkling with sequin crystals.

Winter where I live is a time of extremes. It is the prying apart of pairs that otherwise can seem tightly nested: cold and hot, dark and light, night and day, silent and loud, covered and bared, sleeping and wide awake. Between the two a vast space appears, across which sensory awareness shuttles back and forth, accelerating along the way, boosting the experience of each pole to such a degree that tiny increments of new movements appear at the far edges of what was previously possible. Winter invites this dance.

In winter where I live, the difference in temperature between cold and hot, outside and in, day and night can stretch to 60 or even 80 degrees – up to twice the range of spring, summer, or fall. As I leave the house, moving from inside to out, I don’t slowly transition degree by degree, I plummet, as if there were no numbers in between 60 F and zero. Winter renders me acutely aware of these extremes.

In no other season am I colder than when winter’s icy envelope seals itself around my bodily self, and succeeds in sinking inches below my skin, compressing my inner warmth into a small fist. In no other season am I ever hotter than when basking and melting in the billowing heat that radiates from branches burning in our wood stove.

Temperature is only one of winter’s extremes. Where I live, there is no white whiter than the brilliance of sunlit snow; and no black blacker than the bare branches on which it sits. There is no light more illuminating than the weak rays of a short-lived day; no dark deeper than the frigid night sky. The earth is never quieter than when its stalks are withered, and never louder than when the blizzard winds wail through them; its curves and contours never more hidden than when blanketed with flakes, and never more revealed.

Winter here propels my sensory awareness back and forth from one extreme to the other. While the speed of the transitions can be shocking, and immediately so, the experience is not unpleasant. For neither pole of a given pair is ever as delightful as when it is needed most as a remedy for its other. Each extreme appears as the antidote that doesn’t cure or fix a pain but folds it back into a rhythm between them that enlivens and invigorates my sense of well-being. The key to well-being is not to get stuck at one extreme or the other, but to keep moving between, not too cold. Not too hot.

Moving back and forth in such rapid arcs has a clearing, clarifying effect. The warmth never felt as nourishing; the cold never as refreshing. The light is sweeter; the dark inspires greater awe. The silence calms to the core; the wind’s din sobers. These sensory oscillations clear out the muck in the middle – opening up a roaring appetite for life – and a desire to move with its primal rhythms. To become hot/cold, light/dark, awake/asleep and back again. To participate. The movements we make make us.

In the early 1990s, I took a dance class at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance with the formidable Pearl Lang. One day she asked us all – what is the secret of dance? No one spoke. To our waiting ears, she delivered her own answer: dynamics. It is not the speed nor direction nor lift nor spin that makes the dance, she explained, but the difference between fast and slow, up and down, left and right, high and low. Her point was clear: if efficacy of expression lies in the distance between differences, then the dancer’s task is to find, explore, and push the extremes.

The genius of the Graham technique is that Martha built it on a rhythm capable of modeling and guiding such explorations: the movements of breathing. Air moves in and out as the diaphragm moves down and up, and the spine straightens and curls. Graham distilled the movements of breathing into what she called contraction (exhaling) and release (inhaling).

Contraction and release are not positions. They are not ends or things or forms to which a dancer conforms. They are vectors of action that, while directly opposing one another, nonetheless pull each another into being. Pushed to its farthest reach the release rebounds in a contraction; and as the contraction sinks deep into the dancer’s tissues, it goes as far as a dancer is able to feel before exploding into a release. In the Graham technique the movements of breathing not only chart extremes, they ensure that each peak is not an end in itself, but the beginning of another becoming. Each extreme makes a difference.

Said otherwise, the movements of contraction and release guide dancers to pry the ends of breathing apart and open up between them a vast space across which their sensory awareness can shuttle back and forth, testing and discovering nuances in gestures, thoughts, and actions. Contraction and release are not two parts of a unified whole. They form a circuit – a divided spiraling whole that moves in tension with itself to pump sensory awareness into being in and as the bodily self of a dancer. These movements catalyze participation the rhythms of bodily becoming.

In a similar way, so do the extremes of winter.

Graham dancers practice what winter demands: an ability to find, open, and explore the extremes between which sensory awareness may move freely, rapidly, productively. To dance is to learn to sustain this dynamic – this rhythmic friction of a bodily self moving back and forth in relation to itself – and so build in oneself an ongoing awareness of how to move without pain or injury, making movements that communicate participation in this elasticity.
It is dark. Before heading out for evening chores, I sit by the fire, feasting on the flames. With each breathe I kindle a warmth within me that bleeds through me, dissolving into the radiance that engulfs me. Slowly, my skin thins, and I am molten core, touched by light, spilling outward. I am ready to become cold in the dark again.

I put on my headlamp and step outside, the cold rushes towards me, drawing me forth to play like a snowflake, twisting and turning in the crosshairs of gravity. And I can. My warmth aura glows, inches around me. I keep moving, feeling my feet as I go.

Note: Inspiration for this post came from a person who read my blog post “Falling for Dance” and asked: what about winter?

Looking for a Purpose? Start trading your talents

There was a time in my life soon after college when I was obsessed with the Will of God for my life. I mean obsessed. I would think about it all the time. I had convinced myself that my life had one purpose; that that purpose was my only path to happiness; and that the Christian God knew exactly what that purpose was, while I did not.

I had to figure it out. My life depended on it.

I was at the time, trying to make it as a professional dancer, and I dearly wanted some confirmation that I was doing the right thing.

I prayed. I asked other people to pray for me. I read the Bible constantly—even on the subway en route to dance class—searching for signs. Nothing. I was so curdled with anxiety, I could barely eat. Finally, I met with a pastor I didn’t know. After I explained my concerns he said: “Sounds like you’ve been working hard on God. Why don’t you let God work on you.”

It was a light bulb moment. I dropped everything—my belief, my faith, my rituals, my religious community. I said to myself: “Whatever comes back to me is mine.”

I walked in the woods. I did yoga. I danced. I ate. I spent time with friends. I did what made me feel good and nourished. As I did, it became perfectly clear: not only had I completely misunderstood what the Will of God is, I had been looking for it in all the wrong places, in all the wrong ways.

One of the items that came back to me was the Parable of the Talents (as told in Mark 25:14-30). I had never liked this parable. In fact, I hated it. When I first heard it, I was appalled. I was about 12 years old. As the master handed out talents to his servants, and told them to take care of these talents while he was gone, I felt sure I knew which servant had chosen the right path. My Dad had instilled in me a fierce appreciation for saving all of my allowance, and I did, every week. I knew that the servant who kept the money safe by burying it in the ground—rather than risking it by trade it in the market place—would be rewarded. When Jesus got to the punch line, I was aghast. The master rewarded the risk takers and punished the one who had saved. What do you mean it is wrong to save?

Nevertheless, in the months after I let go of my faith, this story came back to me. What interested me about it was not the “talent” per se – and whether it was actually money, or metaphorically a gift or ability—but the movement, the relationships, and the master’s response.

The two servants who were rewarded traded their talents. They went out into the market place; they found something that someone did not want; they bought it, and then sold it to someone who did want it, for a higher price. In other words, the servants moved their talents. They circulated them. When the master rewarded them, he gave them more of what they had just earned themselves. I began to think of my purpose as a talent in at least three ways.

For one, the value of a talent is not predetermined. It is something whose value you do not know until you do something with it—trade it. Give it away. Receive something back. Give that away. Receive something back. The value of the talent appears through a rhythm of giving and receiving; each time the talent comes back to its caretaker more developed. Each time it reveals more of what it has the potential to be.

Second, a talent creates relationships. It is not something you have just for yourself; not something whose value you can discover by gazing at it—or burying it. A talent reveals its potential when it moves people: it moves the servant to trade, and her trading partners to respond. As a talent moves from one person to another, it creates connections—where one person wants what the other has to give—and by means of these connections it doubles its value.

Third, and related, in creating these relationships, the talent is a source of guidance. For any given talent, not everyone will want it. Not everyone will buy it. The talent determines which kind of exchanges a person can make—it is enough? It determines what kinds of relationships—is it fair? While the parable does not assess the quality of the servants’ exchanges, we assume they were fair. By moving their talents, the servants created relationships between people that were, or at least could have been, mutually beneficial.

My understanding of God’s Will flipped completely. Any purpose for my life was not some judgment on my head; nor was it a key to a stress-free existence. It wasn’t some hidden secret I had to track down.

Any purpose was like a talent: It was a potential in me for thinking, feeling and acting whose value I could not know in advance—a potential whose value I had to discover by giving it away, and using it to create mutually enabling relationships with other people.

That was different.

In this light, it was absurdly clear. Of course my desire to dance was a talent. No question. How dare I bury it! Calling it a talent did not mean that I was good at it—I wasn’t. Nor was it a guarantee of what would come of it—I wasn’t about to make the New York City Ballet. All it meant was that that desire for dance was a balled-up knot of sensory awareness whose value it was my job to discover through a rhythm of giving and receiving in relation to others. I had to trade it.

In other words, I had to move. I had to move—in dance classes, in auditions, in rehearsals, in my own living room. I had to give what I had whatever it was and see what came back. Such movements would create the relationships with teachers and dancers and myself that over time, would help me discern what more I had to trade.

The story that had once punched me in the gut, now lifted me up with hope and joy. I could move differently. I had permission to move differently. I had permission to pay attention to what feels good to me, right to me. I had permission to dance—I didn’t need permission to dance. The gift had already been given. Permission was internal to the gift. And so was responsibility.

I began to follow my desire to dance, letting it lead me in giving and receiving, creating and becoming, myself in relation to others. Sure enough, my path unfolded.

As it did, I began to understand dance itself in new ways—as a capacity given to all humans, and not just me. Dancing is not just about learning steps and mastering tricks. Dancing, as I know and practice, is about learning to pay attention to the movements you are making, and to how these movements are making you.

Some movements hurt. If you keep making them, you will be injured. Some movements are difficult, but get easier over time. Some movements feel awkward and unbalanced, but soon develop greater strength in you. To dance is to cultivate a sensory awareness that can guide you not only in moving with clarity, grace, efficiency, and strength—but also in finding movements to make that express the care and attention required to find them; movements that connect with others in mutually beneficial ways; movements that make love real.

Whatever your faith, and whether you have one or not, every movement you make in your life is a prayer. Every movement you make in your life makes your God real.

Every movement is an invitation to the energy of life to flow into the pattern of precise neuro-muscular coordination required to make that movement. Every movement is an invitation to perceive and receive sensations along this stretch of effort—to open and grow in one direction and not another.

Thus every movement you make participates in the ongoing act of creation—it creates you and your relationship to your own bodily self. How are you moving in relationship to yourself? Gentle or harsh, tender or tough, enabling or repressive? Angry or judgmental or supportive or kind?

For me, one message of the Parable of the Talents is that the movements we make in relation to ourselves come back to us in time as characterizing the relationship we have created with the universe. The servant who buried his talents in fear of judgment, made God into a fearful judge. The servants who embraced and traded their talents made God into a beneficent source of enduring well being. The movement that we practice in relation to our own talents—the care and attention we devote to them, the sensory awareness we cultivate of them—are what make the holy real for us. They are what make our purpose real for us.

With every movement we create the world as we then know it.

The question to ask, then, is not “what is my purpose?” but “what do I have to trade?” You’ll find out.

From Psychology Today


We Are Not Done Yet

What has helped me most in navigating last week’s events is a simple idea. This is what the fight for women’s rights looks like: women coming forward, speaking from their pain, and demanding changes in the conditions that caused it. So keep feeling, dreaming, sharing, demanding… and let’s make it happen….

Check out my latest post about it!

Radical Love: A Message for Our Time


Check out my latest blog post!

I was inspired by 1) the political moment; and 2) an invitation to write program notes for the Martha Graham Dance Company’s performances at the Paris Opera in July. I took the opportunity to dive back into my notes on Nietzsche and Graham… and I saw things I had not seen before!