Saturday, August 18, 2012

Plastic Shaman

I came across this term while I was surfing Wikipedia (yes, I do this).  It immediately made me think of the little plastic dashboard Jesus that was a staple in my parents cars.  I recognize plastic shaman is a pejorative akin to snake oil charlatan, but at the same time the little truth chime in my head goes off.  Recognizing that there are an increasing number of exactly that, plastic shamans, out there.  And I am tossed back to a conversation I had with a friend a few weeks ago on a related topic.

We live in an interesting age.  More and more people called to a shamanistic practice with almost nowhere to learn that.  Please understand, I am not talking about people who do this for status, we all know the sweat lodge braggart who is the Fifth Sacred Thunderbird Firekeeper of the fill-in-the-blank Nation, or those who do it only as a means to make money, to achieve fame or to get laid.  And it seems there are a shit ton of these folks out there.  Also people who claim to have the goods, but have no training whatsoever.  Sprinkled among these absolute fucktards are some folks who are the real deal.    If you're lucky you find one of these before one of the former burns out your passion for the work.

There is a certain amount of phoniness to me in claiming what rightfully belongs in Navaho, or Lakota, or Q'ero, or Tibetan, or Wiradjuri, or Yoruban culture.  Don't read that and be pissed if you are one of the shamanistic folks.  But do think about it open-mindedly.  Those spiritual practices co-evolved with those cultures, not a post-technology boom, fast paced Western world.  There is no way that we can ever fully understand what someone raised in that culture does.  And insisting it must be only that one way, sounds a little bit like the Koolaid that the church I was raised in wanted me to drink.  No thank you.  That's all I'm trying to say.

So what's a body to do if they are called to a spiritual shamanistic practice but comes from a culture that lacks one?  It's not like you beebop down to the Church of the Shining Shaman and sign on or that you are born knowing because an elder divined it for you.  Western European colonialism and science have done a pretty good job of eradicating those things.  Most of us find someone local to hang out with, then maybe you study with a native elder, maybe from one of those cultures listed above.  But you will always be an outsider in those practices.  There is just no way that a practitioner raised outside those places can understand as well as a person raised in those traditions.  The cultural reference points are off.  This doesn't mean that you can't be a powerful practitioner - NOT AT ALL.  What it means is that you need to adapt what you know to your own cultural reference points.

Remember that Darwin dude?  Adapt or die.  That's what nature shows us.  Most shamanistic cultures are steeped in connection to nature, so small leap here, why shouldn't our spiritual practices evolve?  Why shouldn't they adapt to our environment too?  Spirituality should be an evolving, living, breathing part of our lives.  How can it do that, be that, if we are locked to say, a Peruvian mesa, but live in the Eastern Woodland where there are no mesas?  To clarify......I know what a mesa is, but it's not like I get up every morning, look out my window and stand in awe of a towering red mesa.  It is just a word to me.  I do spend a lot of time though wandering under the protective canopy of those Eastern Woodland trees.  I have certain kinds of trees that I love, beech, burr oak, redbud, certain individual trees with whom I have an ongoing relationship.  These trees are my 'mesa'.  Ditto the idea of totems or helpers.  While, I dig the idea of a condor, they have no place in my real life.  But say Muhammed Ali or Barbara McClintock could come and hang with me for a while.  There's a cultural reference point that I can bite into.  Making the teaching personal, current and relevant is one way to evolve a shamanic practice to Velveteen Rabbit real.

I wonder how much more genuine a practice might feel if, once you've gotten a good foundation in the basic aspects of shamanism, you had a little one-on-one with your peeps and see what they had in mind and how you need to adapt what you know to where you are.  How do you evolve your practice so that it fits where you are, where you are going?  By evolve here I DON'T mean tweeting about your status as great Poobah of BFE Whatev to your own aggrandizement, nothing against the Twitter, but of using the tools that our culture provides for us in ways that are aligned with our practice.  What if Christianity had evolved along with it's followers?  How powerful might that be?  Maybe fewer of us would be called to something else if it had.

That said, anyone who can point me toward a plastic shaman for my dashboard will earn serious bonus points.  And just to be straight, I would not claim to BE a shaman by having that any more than having the Jesus give me the hairy eyeball from the dash made me the J-man.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Kissing Ali

Quote from the inner label of my HonesTea today:

"Don't count the days.  Make the days count."  - Muhammed Ali

I get a lot of mileage from this story and people seem awed by the very idea, but the truth is I didn't really think it that big a deal - more of a young woman's fancy than anything else.  Just goes to show you how the filter of history can magnify things over time.  But the truth is that in the spring of 1982 under a warm sunny southern sky, I kissed Muhammed Ali. 

Muhammed Ali aka Cassius Clay, as my parents were always very careful to name him, was part of my childhood.  Boxing was a regular TV occurrence because pay-per-view had yet to be invented and Ali WAS boxing until I was in college.  So, like I said Ali is part of the stage in which my childhood played out.

My parents loathed him, I never could figure out why.  When I was little, I thought he was funny and sassy.  If I had followed his lead, there would have been a spanking at the end of it for being fresh.  I loved to jump rope to the 'floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee" patter, but always quietly so as not to be overheard.  Because like my parents, all the parents in my neighborhood loathed Ali.  He was vilified more than any single person I overheard them speak of.  As I grew older, I found him to be smart and attractive in both his brash and soft-spoken moments.  He was the first black man I can remember recognizing by sight.  I loved the impromptu poetry of his patter and the poetry of his body in motion.  To say that I crushed on him in a big way would be less than truth.  Not that I would ever have said that out loud in that house at that time. 

His decision to become a Muslim and a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war seemed right to me.  I mean, who in their right mind would go to that place that Walter Cronkite took us to every night during dinner?  Who would go of their own free will?  And just why WERE we there?  Ali, in his own way, introduced me to the concept of social justice although I doubt it had a name then.  It was an idea that took root in rather poor soil and flourished.  Not that I can claim to be an activist in that regard, but I know the truth in my heart of what equality is.  Always have.  And I will always choose that side.

My dad used the N-word liberally along with a number of other racial or religious slurs.  That's kind of embarrassing to admit and as much as I would like him to be perfectly PC, he wasn't.  He didn't know any better.  He didn't graduate high school and worked a factory job his whole life.  Sadly, in his world that word was still acceptable.  One should never feel the need to apologize for someone, and yet I still do. 

My mother never used that word, but then why would she?  She had grown up in a place where the only black person she would see in 20+ years was a porter who got off the Chicago and Northwestern train in Fargo for medical treatment.  My mom probably disliked Ali because of his swagger.  In her battened-down upbringing there among Garrison Keillor's Lutherans, self-deprecation was the norm.  Self-loathing was rewarded.  As much as I don't want to think about it, I suspect that this self-confident young black man stirred her own feelings of inadequacy and that resulted in her dislike.  She's still not too keen on self-confidence when she encounters it, choosing instead to always see it through the filters of her own childhood.

That is the environment of my home in the 1960's, the subconscious hum of race always there but never spoken of.  I describe it, because the world today has changed so very much that I can't imagine a child today recognizing only one African face at the age of ten or twelve.  Most today will know dozens of atheletes, musicians, TV actors, neighbors, classmates, etc.  I envy them that, not much else, but I envy them that balance of role models of infinite color.   There were none of these for me growing up.  Everyone in my hometown was of the same race and socioeconomic class.  The neighborhood I grew up in was populated by roving hoards of Catholic kids with whom I attended school.  My world was ever so small.  I would have to deliberately seek out something different if I wanted that experience.  So, while I saw people of color on the downtown streets, my life was not that different than my mother's.  My first non-Catholic, my first non-Caucasian friends, my first poor friends, my first wealthy friends, pretty much my first everything would be found in college.

In 1982, I don't think most of Louisville thought that much of Ali, not the college age part anyway.  He had retired from fighting, the patter had grown stale.  It would be another two years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson's.  I'm not sure when the tide turned for Ali, but 1982 was definitely before that.  Retrospectively, I'm pretty sure my classmates viewed him as a washed up, rather loud-mouthed, has been boxer. Maybe that explains why his visit to campus with then govenor John Y. Brown, Jr (who I thought and still think of as a compete fucktard) garnered so small a crowd.  Perhaps twenty or thirty people turned out for the speeches.  I was there for one reason only - to see Ali.

I would not have the courage today to reach through his superstar status to make that request, nor would I have the strength to elbow my way through the throng that would gather just to see him if I had.  Some Midwestern traits are deeply embedded in my genes like having the nerve to ask to kiss Muhammed Ali.  I still marvel that I ever did.  But on a sunny spring day, a very cheeky co-ed took a page from her idol's playbook.

"He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life" - Muhammed Ali 

That co-ed dared to give the The Greatest a peck on the cheek.  
I kissed Ali.

I like to imagine a little of his magic rubbed off on me that day
has rubbed off on all of us
and that as a result I am the Greatest
we are all the Greatest.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Occam's Razor

I exhale, standing in line for my morning coffee. Present and accounted for a full 30 minutes before my early meeting. My shoulders sag, free of the tension of fighting traffic and a sleepless night of running over the upcoming meeting in my head. Mentally I am still rehearsing the points that need addressed at the meeting with my boss. No way am I gonna let him brush off real discussion this week.

Ba-Da-Na-Na-Nah......Ba-Da-Na-Na-Nah...... I fish in my purse for my phone, see it’s my mom and answer it. A small and very teary voice on the other end says "Hello." CRAP! She's having a bad day.

“What's up mom?”

A frightened voice more suited to a four year old than my 85 year old mother says “I know I am at home, that Pumkin is my dog, but I can't remember how to make coffee and I'm out of milk. I'm lost and scared can you come up?”

“I'm at work right now, but I'll be there in about 30 minutes. Can you just hang tight until then?”

“Yes.” More sobs and a few sniffles.

I bolt for my office hoping to be able to check in with my co-workers and explain briefly, before turning around before retracing pretty much the same traffic-snarled route I just navigated back toward my moms. On the way, I phone my brother, fervently hoping he can handle the situation today. No answer. Not that connecting with him would have altered my course.

All thoughts of work and my morning meeting forgotten, my mind churns with worry about what I will find today when I walk thru the door. Is she hurt? Is she sick? Is she having a bad day? Or is today the first day of a forever of bad days? That last thought causes a grip in my midsection like the rebound from a welterweight punch. My heart breaks a little. I am not ready for this I shout in my head. The tears push through the barrier and threaten to spill. Well ready or not, it's coming and crying? Really? That won't help. So pull it together and be there for her. See where she is today and stop imagining zebras.

Distracted, I run a red light as I speed through downtown. I look around guiltily praying that no cop saw me do that. A ticket is the last thing I need this morning. No point in killing yourself. She will still be there whenever you get there. With some effort, I ease my foot off the accelerator, slow to the speed limit, and try to focus on the driving. But my mind is still only partly on the task. The rest is tucked up with my mom in her little crackerbox house. JustbeOK. JustbeOK. JustbeOK. I loop it in my head and unconsciously press down on the accelerator again.

I pause for a moment, hand on the door. Breathe. You can do this. Pushing the door open I find my mom sleeping on the couch.....or is she? FUCK! But I can see her chest rising shallowly with each breath. I exhale. Squatting down beside her, I touch her on the arm. The eyes that flutter open are as lost and confused as the voice that croaks out a small “Hello”. For a moment I realize she doesn't know me and that little crack in my heart widens. The tears threaten again, but I stifle them with a quickness. “Hi mom” I greet her, hoping for a gleam of recognition where there isn’t one.

I rub her arm gently, aware that touch sometimes helps her find her way back into the now from wherever she goes in the past. Nothing. I kiss her on the forehead and decide to give her space to wake all the way up before panicking. I unpack the milk and pastry I picked up on the way, start coffee perking and walk back out steeled with my best game face.

She is sitting up and looks at me when I return, some faint whisper of recognition there. “I feel dizzy” she states simply. I stand her up, hoping to gawd she doesn’t vomit. I don’t do vomit. She lurches and I think we are both going down, but then I catch my balance and right us both. I sit her down in her chair at the dining room table, the one facing the big picture window, the one that has yesterday’s paper spread out like an unruly roadmap in front of it. It’s on the puzzle page, but the puzzles remain blank. This woman who used to do the crossword in ink has left them blank, the crack groans under the effort and tears threaten again. You can’t cry. Not now. Later.

I feed her disgusting sugary pastries because they are her fave, serve her juice and coffee as I wonder, When was the last healthy meal she ate. Conversation is small in clipped sentences. I try to figure out if there is something more wrong with her than the usual Alzheimer’s associated things. Is it possible she had another TIA? She has had one before, but it’s almost impossible to tell the symptoms of that from her Alzheimer’s. While she sips coffee, I slip into the bedroom and call her doctor. I want someone with some medical expertise to evaluate her. No dice. He is out of the office and his staff coldly tells me to take her to the ER if it’s serious. Motherfuckers if I knew it was serious we would already be at the ER. Sometimes medical staff makes me want to go Rambo. But I know Rambo wouldn’t be able to help any of us where we are today.

When I go back out, she looks a bit brighter, but still mostly absent. Like a toddler, she announces “I’m tired” and I walk her to her recliner and settle her there. “I’m cold” she says in that same flat voice that scares me more than Pennywise the Clown ever did. It’s August, the A/C is on and it’s pleasant in her house. She is never too cold, a fact I attribute to her childhood in the Dakotas. I cover her gently with a fleece throw, kiss her forehead. She is asleep in moments and I suspect she will be out for a couple hours. So, bad daughter that I am, I slip home to grab some things.

Driving home, that’s when the tears hit. I barely make it the mile between her house and mine. Stumble up the stairs and throw myself onto the couch where I dissolve in sobs that originate somewhere in the vicinity of my toes and feel like nothing so much as teary vomit. Then there is real vomit the way that too-strong emotions always bring that for me. I hear her little voice say “I am tired”. I nod my head in agreement. I am tired too. Tired of this situation. Glad for every moment that I have her aware and that crack in my heart ever widening in the moments she is not. One day there will be no bounce. She will stay in the away place. The crack will break my heart into pieces. Please don’t let that be today I pray.

Exhausted, I fall asleep with that prayer on my lips. And in my dreams I see my grandmother and with her a platoon of stern-faced, broom-wielding women I intuitively know to be my greats. Hard and dutiful farmwomen whose genes I carry despite moving away from farm life. They are me and I am them no matter where I live, no matter what I do. I should mention that my grandmother scared the crap outta me my whole life. There was no pleasing her, I was too loud or too quiet, I was always improperly dressed and behaved like a hooligan. I was lazy and needed discipline. Only when she fell into her own Alzheimer’s hell did she soften. By then she no longer recognized me. Perhaps she was softer than her mother, the way that my mother was softer than she, the way that I am softer than my mom. The way my daughters would have been a better version of me if there had been daughters.

When I return to Mom’s later, she is awake and seems fine or at least what we are calling fine these days, fine being a sliding scale. I take her to lunch, we go fabric shopping, we laugh and things in my world right themselves again.

I like to think that my grandmother and her broom posse came to my mom while she slept and swept out the cobwebs. It’s like this morning never happened for her.  Too bad I can't same the same for me. That is both the curse and the blessing of where we are. But this morning did happen and sometimes I can still hear that little broken voice coming thru my phone and see that vacant sparkless look in her eyes in my head. It’s coming, the day without a bounce. But not today. And until then, I’m keeping the grandmothers on speed dial.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

It's So Much More Than It Seems

I go my hair cut today.  About an acre and a half lopped off the bottom that needed to go and the Rogue stripe brought closer and closer to where I envisioned it when I first saw Anna Paquin rock it in X-men.  

I know many people will hate it on sight.  

I know most people won't understand it.

I know some people will compare me to my friend Patricia who also sports a stripe on her pale red locks.  There are worse people I could emulate, but she hasn't anything to do with it really.  

I don't care how you feel about it, whether you like/hate it, whether you understand or if you think I look like the Big Fig Newton himself.  I just don't care.  

It makes me radiantly happy.  It made me laugh with joy when she was done today.  

I am talking to my friend Karla as she cuts and dabbles on the canvas that is my head, when I realize that there has been something monumental and rather important that happened to me that allowed me to make this change.  My childhood was spent learning to hide, hide my intelligence, hide my feelings, hide pretty much everything that made me who I am at my core.  As an abused child I learned to physically hide my body, to occupy the smallest space possible in order to escape notice.  When my weight began to soar as the result of an undiagnosed metabolic issue, all those thoughts and ideas were reinforced.  I saw only judgment in eyes wherever I looked.  So I stopped looking.

A lifetime of learning later I don't feel that way any longer.  I genuinely like who I am.  I no longer need approval.  Other people's judgment based on looks, well that's on them.  I am who I am.  And who I am today is someone who is not afraid to be seen, not afraid to look different, not afraid to BE different.  In fact, those are some of my favorite things about myself.  My hair is simply another outward manifestation of that inner change.  It marks another milestone in my recovery toward whole human being.  

Mean Girls Are Never Pretty

Mom's sojourn in Memory Care ended when she could no longer stand and became what they term a 2-assist.  She transitioned to Skilled C...