Category Archives: bodily movement

Love Your Body? The Dance of Martha Graham

Describing her “way of doing things,” American modern dancer Martha Graham (1894-1991) wrote: “It is a freedom of the body and a love of the body.” “Love” may not be the first word that comes to mind to describe the work of an artist whose early dances were so angular and austere that a critic professed she’d give birth to a cube. Yet Graham’s love of the body was fierce and full-throttle – radical for what it loves and how it loves, and for what it reveals love—and a body—to be.

In the 1920s and 30s, when Graham was developing her “way of doing things,” she rejected the word “technique.” Her approach to dance had nothing to do, she insisted, with imposing arbitrary forms onto a body and demanding its obedience to them. Instead, the “freedom” and “love” to which she aspired involved a different approach: a dancer must learn to pay attention to her bodily self; train her bodily self to move in line with its own elemental rhythms, and in time, trust her bodily self as a source of guidance and inspiration. This “way of doing things” is love.

Paying attention. Graham wanted to discover movement that was strong and significant—“fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.” She did not want her movement to “leak out” (Lloyd 1949). So day after day in the studio, Graham urged the young women of her fledgling dance company to pay attention to the fundamental, life-enabling bodily movements they were making in their ordinary lives: walking and running, laughing and crying, breathing, falling and rising again.

For Graham, paying attention to one’s movement is, like listening, “a complete focus upon a given instant.” Like listening it involves tuning in to waves—not of sound but of feeling—sensory swells arising and passing in every moment, across every surface and segment of bodily being. Dancers strive to cultivate a sensory awareness so intense it “animates” their “whole being” (1941), and can mobilize that whole being—mind, heart, and body—in space. No part is left out or forgotten. This attention is love.

Training. For Graham, paying attention yielded a pair of movement patterns—contraction and release—that would become the core of her every exercise, every gesture, and every choreography. She discovered these patterns by noticing how the alternating vectors of breathing—inhaling and exhaling—rearrange a body into complementary shapes.

Graham distilled these movements into kinetic images: an exhale became the “contraction” and an inhale became the “release.” As “images” of breathing, a dancer can feel, study, and recreate the contraction and release independent of actual breathing. As “kinetic,” the contraction and release exist only in movement, as movement. When repeated, they function as an energy pump, developing within a dancer a source of movement motivation – a muscular force field in the lower abdomen – that she can use to direct and deliver her sensorily animated, whole bodily self into a wide range of desired movements with power and precision. By basing her approach to dance on an elemental rhythm without which humans cannot live for more than four minutes, Graham sought to discover movements that would “do no violence, anatomically or emotionally” (1941).

In the early years of her career, as her dancers recount, Graham did not care what a movement looked like. She cared where in a body it began, how it passed through, and where it went. What mattered was whether a movement strengthened a bodily self along paths of potent action opened up by honoring and practicing its own elemental rhythms. This practice is love.

Trusting. For Graham, in dance as in life, the movements that we make us: from “the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual…comes a shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit” (1991). Human actions not only give rise to an understanding of who we are and what we can do, they do so by organizing our nervous system, influencing what we perceive and how we respond. The movements we make don’t just make us, they become us (LaMothe 2015).

And when a person’s movements train and tune his sensory awareness to the rhythms of breathing – as in Graham’s way of doing things – his experience of his own body changes. “It” is no longer a thing or material object. It is him. He becomes someone who trusts his bodily self to discern how to make a movement in ways that do no violence. He becomes a dancer whose every movement can express the care and attention that he has practiced in order to be able to make that move. This trust is love.

Performing. Love of the body is why Graham danced; it is what she nurtured in her dancers, and it was also what she wanted audiences to receive when watching her dance performances. Graham choreographed nearly 200 dances over a period of 70 years. From the most abstract to those peopled with named characters, Graham intention was the same: “to communicate participation to the nerves, the skin, the structure of the spectator” (Armitage 1978).

Graham was not concerned with whether audience members understood what she was doing; she wanted them to feel it. She wanted her dances to wake people up viscerally – to give them an experience of themselves as moved, as moving, and so stir to life in them a sensory awareness of their own movement-making, of their own capacity for freedom and love of the body.

Even when Graham danced a murderer as in Clytemnestra or in Cave of the Heart (as Medea), or when she danced a victim, unjustly accused, as in Seraphic Dialogue (about Joan of Arc) or Rite of Spring, Graham wanted her audience members to identify viscerally with the force of creativity thrumming through every movement that she or her dancers were making – to feel that pulse even in the most extreme moments of human experience – and so emerge affirmed in their own search for movements that do no violence, anatomically or emotionally. This affirmation is love.

To dance, for Graham, is to love the body, where what “love” and “the body” mean are defined by her dancing. Love is not a feeling of abstract or unconditional affection directed towards some thing; it is a way of being a bodily self, open to and oriented by what a trained, trusted sensory awareness helps you perceive. It is a radical love that plumbs to the roots of human experience, willing to welcome all bodily experiences – comedies, tragedies, and everything in between – as occasions to dance. As Graham was fond of saying, “you stand or fall on the vulnerability of yourself to life” (1952). This dance is love.

This post is a continuation and elaboration of reflections begun in an earlier post on Friedrich Nietzsche and Martha Graham: “Radical Love: A Message for Our Time.” For more, see “Winter’s Life-Affirming Extremes—and Martha Graham.”

References

Armitage, Merle, ed. 1978 (1937). Martha Graham: The Early Years. NY: de Capo Press.

Graham, Martha. 1991. Blood Memory. NY: Doubleday.

———-. 1952. “The Medium of Dance.” Lecture. Audiotape, Dance Collection, New York Public Library.

———-. 1941. “A Modern Dancer’s Primer for Action,” in Rogers (1941), pp. 178-187.

LaMothe, Kimerer. 2015. Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming. NY: Columbia University Press.

———-. 2006. Nietzsche’s Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the Revaluation of Christian Values. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lloyd, Margaret. 1949. The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. New York.

Rogers, Frederick R., ed. Dance: A Basic Educational Technique. NY: MacMillan, 1941.

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The Gravity of Small Movements

Click here for my latest post on Psychology Today! I’m thinking about small movements… like rocking, fidgeting, and balancing while running… and gravity… and our relationship to the earth… and what it all means for dance.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-body-knows/201903/the-gravity-small-movements-bodily-wisdom-in-action

Enjoy!

How Living with an Ox Changed My Life

IMG_6089Thursday, February 14 — The door flung open, and my son Jordan (23) rushed into the kitchen. “Where are my spikes?”

“What happened?” I asked. Twenty minutes earlier, Jordan had left the house to yoke up Bright and Blaze, his pair of oxen, and retrieve a load of cut elm logs from the fields that he had felled the day before.

“Bright slipped on some ice and can’t get up!” Jordan was gone.

Bright is big. He weighs 2,000 pounds and stands nearly 6 feet tall at the highest point on his back. He had to get up.

“C’mon Leif! Let’s go.”

I loaded my youngest (age 9) into the car, and we drove a quarter mile to the access road that leads to our back fields. Thirty feet off the paved road, down a steep, snowy bank, Jordan’s one-ton ox was lying on his belly with his hind legs spread, one sticking straight out to either side, his head surrounded by the branches of a prickly hawthorn tree. I left the car with its hazard lights flashing and slid down to where Jordan was standing.

“He can’t get up.” Jordan and I looked at one another, wanting beyond anything to pick up Bright’s massive frame and set him soundly on his feet. Had he broken a knee? Dislocated a hip? Should we call the vet?

“What can the vet do?” Jordan asked. As our thoughts churned, Bright lay there calmly. He did not thrash or bellow. His left leg was trembling. From time to time, he moaned softly.

Having an ox slip happens from time to time on mud or snow or ice. But usually they scramble to their feet and are fine. Bright was now 10, larger and less limber than he had ever been. We cleared the hawthorn branches from around his head and cut down a sumac sapling that seemed to be stopping his left hind leg from moving forward. We had to do something.

Without warning, Bright lurched upward. His front legs and right hind leg powered forward, while his left leg swung out to the side, straight and not bending beneath him. He stumbled a few yards and crashed down again, farther from the access road, deeper into the bushes. This time, however, he fell with his right leg tucked neatly under him, and only the left one stuck out to the side. We could at least see it. I stroked the injured leg. He lay there calmly, looking at me as I circled him, cutting away branches that poked his face.

We called Geoff. We called Jessica (in her second year at vet school). We called the vet. We talked to a neighbor. Geoff and Kai (13) arrived on the scene. We debated our options. The sun was setting. The temperature was falling. Bright was starting to shiver. The distance home felt immense, and we were face to face with a fierce and unforgiving fact: We had no way to help Bright stand up. A tractor, even if large enough, couldn’t get down the snow bank to where he was. Still, we didn’t want to leave him there on the cold snow over night. If he couldn’t stand, we should probably put him down. The thought socked me in the stomach. My heart ached. For Bright. For Jordan. For me.

We left Bright and drove back to the house. I called our neighbors. Would they be willing to lend us a gun? The firearm they owned wasn’t large enough. Jordan and Geoff drove to two other neighbors. No one was home. On the way back to our house, they drove by Bright again. By some miracle of his own making, he was standing. He was standing! If only he could stand…

Jessica, on the phone, explained, “Leaving him alone may have been a good thing. Bright is a herd animal. Lying down in the dark, unable to move, defenseless, all alone, away from home — that is his worst nightmare!”

We went into action. If Bright was going to stand, then we were going to do all we could to help him. We decided to dig him a path to the road, bank him with hay, make sure he’d be comfortable overnight, and see what happened. We stuffed our station wagon full of hay and tossed in a couple of metal shovels for chipping away the ice. I got in to drive back to Bright. The car wouldn’t start. Parking for hours with the hazard lights on had killed the battery. We jump-started the station wagon with our Prius and drove both cars back to the access road. By then, Bright had managed to turn himself around and was facing uphill and the road home.

We started cutting a path through the frozen snow bank. Kai and I ran back to the house for more shovels; we kept digging. Bright stood there, placid and patient, watching our flurry of furious activity. Then suddenly, without even registering a movement, Bright had moved. Sideways. Closer.

It was as if Bright knew exactly what he had to do — wait for the pain to subside and his will to crest into a blast of effort that would launch his 2,000 pounds a few feet forward. Each time, we cheered and kept digging. We made sure we were not in his way. We let him choose when to move, where to move, and how.

We finished clearing a path down to the grass, and spread it with hay. We stood in a semicircle, watching Bright watching us, all of us wanting the same thing. It was dark. The moon was beaming and nearly full. I sent everyone home to eat dinner while I waited for Bright’s next eruption.

The stars were sparkling. The night was brilliantly clear. Though the air was cold, I was not. I wrapped myself in deep silence. From time to time, I talked to Bright and encouraged him. I stroked his injured leg. I sat nearby. I got up and danced. He watched. I could hear Jordan down the road, shoveling out a path to the stall in our barn where Bright would hopefully soon be. After another half hour, Bright had scuttled another 6 feet. He was 3 feet from the road. I was ecstatic. If he could make it to the road, all that awaited was gently sloped pavement leading back home. I knew he wanted it.

He made it to the road. Thirty feet in three-and-a-half hours.

At this point, it made sense to call the vet. Fifteen minutes later, she came. Bright’s left hind leg was not obviously broken or dislocated. Jordan took his halter rope, and we nudged and pushed Bright down the road to the stall. With each step, he lurched, swinging his left hind leg in a circle, putting as little weight on it as possible. The vet gave Bright a steroid painkiller and told us he had to stand up at least three times a day, otherwise his right hind leg would go numb and start to atrophy. If it did, Bright would be unable to stand, and would go downhill quickly. “Give him three days; you’ll know.”

That night, we were hopeful. Bright had been with us for over 10 years — a long life relative to most male bovine — but we still were not ready for this arc of our lives to end.

Ten years. Jordan was 13 when he told us he wanted a pair of bull calves to train as oxen. I bought him a book. We already had three Jersey cows, a quarter horse named Marvin, a flock of hens, and a clowder of cats. Oxen? But Jordan wanted a source of farm power — something we could use to haul firewood, and maybe mow hay or plow. He was so sure. When a friend of his from 4H called to say she had a pair of Milking Shorthorn bulls born a week apart, there was no good reason to say no. Jordan named them Bright and Blaze. Geoff and Jordan drove them home in the back of the same station wagon we had filled with hay. The bulls were 4 and 5 weeks old, still drinking milk. The kids fed them with half-gallon baby bottles.

Soon after the bull calves arrived, Jordan began their training. To train a pair of oxen, you need a yoke. To get a yoke, you need to make one. To make a yoke, you need to bend hickory into U-shaped bows. To get hickory, you need to fell a hickory tree, cut long rounded pieces from the trunk, and then set up a steaming device — which we did — with a pasta pot and PVC tubing on top of our wood stove. Every day after school, Jordan would place his yoke on the necks of his baby bulls, tie a small sled to the yoke — sometimes with 4-year-old Kai aboard — and drive his team around the yard, teaching them their commands: Giddap! Gee! Haw! Whoa! Back! Step in! Step out! Head up! Stand.

As the bulls grew, they needed a new yoke, and the new yoke needed metal hardware. Jordan asked for a blacksmith shop so he could make the hardware himself. At 6 months, our vet steered the bulls, and Jordan began using his team to haul logs from the woods to burn for fuel.

With the simple act of pulling dead trees from our forests, Bright and Blaze changed our lives: how we lived and what we wanted; how we related to each another and to our land; what we could imagine possible all evolved.

Rather than burning fuel oil to heat our house, we started burning wood. We exchanged our decorative wood stove for an efficient re-gasifer (with a window!), and sliced our oil bill by two-thirds. We redesigned our living area so that we as a family could all gather round the wood stove — the heating heart of our home. And we do. All winter long.

By pulling our firewood, Bright and Blaze pulled us outside to find it and fell it — to walk the property, keen on discovering which trees were dead or dying or overcrowded. We learned to see the trees — to identify the types, knowing which would burn well and which would not. We learned to fell them safely, process them efficiently, and load them onto the oxen’s sled. The oxen gave us reasons to spend time together outside as a family on our land, engaged in meaningful work, and ever admiring of the strength, the beauty, and sometimes stubborn will of such formidable creatures.

By pulling our firewood, Bright and Blaze pulled us to a place of wanting to do more — more of what is possible to do every day of our lives to protect the well-being of the natural world. We wanted to use their manure to grow more of our own food; we wanted to take care of our pastures, so they would have good grass and hay to eat. We wanted to clean out and shore up our barns, so they would have places to find shelter. We wanted to create a world in which they could be safe and healthy. Bright and Blaze encouraged us to engage directly with the workings of the natural world — not as sightseers, but as participants locked in a life-enabling reciprocity. They depended on us. We depended on them.

Friday, February 15 — Jordan went out to check on Bright the next morning, found him lying down, and got him to stand up. Around lunch time, Jordan checked again. Bright was down again, and this time would not stand. “We need to get him up,” Jordan said. He tried. I joined him in the barn. We tried. Bright stuck out his neck and refused to move. I suggested we give him his dose of steroid and try an hour later. It worked. Jordan got him to stand. Bright was up. Again, I felt euphoric. If we could just keep him up.

Saturday/Sunday, February 16/7 — After standing all day Friday, Bright stood all day Saturday and all day Sunday. My daughters, Jessica and Kyra, came home. We could tell from the patterns of hay on the floor that Bright was dragging his leg around his stall. When he stood, he would rock from side to side, shifting his weight onto the injured leg and then back. It’s what a body knows. He otherwise seemed fine, eating and drinking and pooping. All good. On Sunday morning, feeling optimistic, Jordan and Jessica tried to take him for a short walk. Bright was still not bending his left hind leg.

Monday, February 18 — Bright was lying down again. Jordan tried to get him up. Jordan and I tried to get him up. We called in Geoffrey, Jessica, Kai, and Leif to help get him up. With all of us together pushing, we could not even roll Bright from one side of his body to the other. I suggested calling the vet.

“Steroids and painkillers are not a long-term solution,” said Jordan. It was his decision. The very tissues in Bright’s leg that needed to heal were the ones Bright needed to use to keep the rest of himself alive.

We called a man who would come to the farm, shoot Bright, end his life instantly and painlessly, and then process the meat for us. The butcher rearranged his schedule to accommodate us. He’d come at noon the next day.

Tuesday, February 19 — I went into Bright’s stall to sit with him for a while. Large patches of fur were missing from each knee, scraped off by the concrete floor. He had obviously been trying to crawl his way to standing and couldn’t. His back left leg was stuck out and so stiff I could not bend it. He looked at me, rolled onto his right side, and lifted his straight left hind leg up into the air, as if to say, “See this? It hurts! It won’t work. Can you do something please?”

I couldn’t. I wished that I could. I scratched him under his huge chin, the way he likes. He stretched his neck long, so I could reach its full length. I massaged the muscles in his hurt leg. His whole body was trembling, as if in pain. I talked to him. I thanked him. I cried.

The rest of the family gathered in Bright’s stall. The butcher came. Pop. It was over.

Death, even for a creature as massive and seemingly unstoppable as an ox, is so close, separated from life by the thinnest of membranes. The light on the side of the living is just bright enough that we usually cannot see through.

Jordan asked the butcher for Bright’s heart. It was as large as a soccer ball, and looked like burgundy fudge. That night, Geoffrey cooked part of Bright’s heart on the grill, and the omnivores in our family ate it. In a couple of weeks, we will have hundreds of pounds of meat. We will not let Bright go to waste. He taught us that.

Now, I can’t help but remember Bright . . . watching me intently, as I open a new pasture, and being the first in. Tossing a 300-pound hay bale with his horns and galloping after it as it unrolled down a hill. Wrestling my newly planted fruit trees and hemlocks to the ground, and winning. Breaking through the fence at 3 a.m., and prowling in the yard under Geoff and my bedroom window. Running our herd of cows down the middle of the road — the middle of the road! — in search of greener pastures. Reaching his large head into the calf stall to check out newborn arrivals. Standing, when I wanted him to move. Listening, as Jordan guided him where to pull. Gentle with the smallest children. Working hard. Grazing peacefully outside my window, as I went about my work inside. Always present. Fully embodied. There.

I miss him — knowing too that he lives on in all he has enabled.

Thank you, Bright.

Tired of Research Studies That Tell You to Exercise?

Are you tired of reading about scientific studies that say you should exercise?

One article came across my science feed this morning, reporting on yet another research study that proves with statistical significance that exercise is good for me. By now the drumbeat is numbingly repetitive: Exercise or else!

In the last year I have read research studies asserting that exercise can reduce or alleviate dementia, depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, addictions, and cancer; it can boost the immune system, improve balance and agility, and bolster mental, emotional, physical and, as this study claims, cognitive health. While many of these studies focus on older adults, this one extends its reach to younger adults as well: You too should exercise and here is why. OK! Got it!

Yet, the CDC reports that only 23% of adult Americans achieve the federal recommendations for physical activity. And I can imagine a typical reader’s response to the study: “I know I know [nods head and rolls eyes] [swipes to next article]. I’ll start next week.” So why do we keep hitting ourselves over the head with stories about what we already know we should do – and aren’t doing? Does it really help?

There is another way to read this article and others like it.

The point to take away is not that we should exercise.

The point is that we are not who we think we are.

This study – without reflecting upon it – advances a radical idea: the movements that we make as bodily selves influence how we think, how well we think, even what we think. Researchers found that aerobic activity not only improved participants’ ability to complete thinking tests, it actually built up grey matter in the left frontal cortex, a “control center” responsible for a dizzying range of cognitive, emotional, motor, social and sexual behaviors.

Taking these conclusions one step further, we may go so far as to say that our capacity to think is not only influenced by our bodily movements, it is dependent upon the movements we make – and I would add, not just the amount of movement (how many minute per day), or the kind of movement (aerobic versus stretching), but the patterns of movement and how those patterns educate our sensory awareness. How we move effects what we sense; what we sense impacts how we feel; how we feel influences what we can think. And all the way back in reverse.

The implication of this article, then, is not: go exercise, or else! The implication is that saying “go exercise” is not actually going to help. We need to think differently about our bodily selves.

Said otherwise, thinking about ourselves as bodily organisms who can choose to exercise is part of the reason why we are not exercising. “Exercise” appears as an add-on. It is extra. It is optional. It is a matter of will power. It is something “we” tell “our bodies” to do for a good reason. And there are many. But good reasons are never enough. Because we are not just our thoughts. We are much more.

As the article implies, we humans are movement. We are the bodily movements we can make, have made, and will make, whether consciously or unconsciously, by choice or under duress. And we are these movements in mutual exchange with a wealth of movements made by other creatures and elements around us and within us who are also moving in relation to us.

At the same time, given the findings of the article, it will not be enough to think differently about ourselves, we also need to move in ways that help us think differently. In other words, we need to do what we can to cultivate a sensory awareness of the movements we are already making, so we can learn to pay attention in any given moment to what the moving, relational matrix of our bodily selves knows.

Further, the “exercise” that the subjects in this study were doing, at least in my mind, is not all that inspiring: it is not the kind of movement that many people are going to be able sustain over the long run – because we are not just our thoughts. Sure, there may a few people who can run on a treadmill, or stationary cycle day in and day out for years; but even for those who do so, there is usually some sort of pleasure or emotional charge involved.

The motivating charge that sustains a movement practice can come from vanity, a competitive spirit, or peer pressure; it can come from a need to relieve pain or illness, from the fear of being injured, or from a desire to accomplish a certain physical feat. In the most sustainable situations, the motivating charge comes from a desire to feel good. To feel the pleasure of breathing, reaching, releasing, and being drawn into the vibrant present. To feel the transformation that movement so often yields, from dullness or discomfort to the joy of being a moving bodily self.

In these instances, the movements that a person is making will enable her to feel these feelings – to open to her sensory self – and thus become more vulnerable, will power or not, to the desire and the need to move some more.

This is not just “exercise.” It is about finding ways of moving that sustain our ongoing bodily becoming over a lifetime. And there are many ways to do so.

Sooner or later, if you engage in patterns of movement that only support your sense of yourself as a thinking mind, your bodily self will start telling you that you need to move differently. If you are moving in ways that limit and deplete your flexibility, stretch, and stamina, your bodily self will resist. Your bodily self will find some way of communicating with you that grabs your attention — most likely with one of those conditions above that “exercise” alleviates.  At that point, it is your choice whether to mask the symptoms, or listen to the causes.

Here then, is where such studies have value – not as props for your will power, but as encouragement to listen to what your bodily self already knows, to look for your life, and to move accordingly.

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.
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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