The Body Binary

“We are made, the scriptures of all religions assure us, in the image of God. Nothing can change that original goodness.” ~ Eknath Easwaran (via Center for Action and Contemplation )

Three 8th graders sit at the only rectangular table in my classroom, a sort of nook against the wall across from my desk. There is a lamp with a shade that has half of the globe printed on it, and a glass cup that I use as a pencil holder, whuch my mom gave me (“You got this” it reads). The three boys are all on the football team at their school. They work out every week day & I imagine that they play backyard sports on the weekends. Each one is thin, one boy with a thicker build than the other two, but still, his would be  considered a slender body.

“I’m fat,” that boy says, candidly contributing to the conversation. The other boys say no, not really. He doesn’t react but I can tell, from my covert post behind my laptop, that he really believes it. He’s not slight like his friends so he must be the only alternative: fat. The implication is, to be fat is a bad thing.

As a girl, body image insecurity was an every day reality for me. There seemed to be two kinds of women at church: those chronically overweight who spoke with shame about their inability to lose weight, or those thin & nearly without-fail, riddled with anxiety, always carrying diet sodas in hand. My body, being stocky in comparison to most white women, didn’t fall in the second category. Yet from a young age I rejected accepting the other category. I wobbled between each extreme, moving at one time in an anorexic direction, then bouncing towards disordered binge eating. The journey with my body & what I eat is still in process, now at the age of 25.

Why would I be surprised that today’s children, inundated with media images of other people’s bodies, are struggling with the same issues? Human problems are inherited & shared, after all. We’re a web of hands reaching out to one another; finding flesh equals a bit of comfort.

I notice that boys are less hesitant to verbalize how they see themselves while girls keep image struggles under wraps, quick to console any of their friends who admits to feeling or looking “fat”.

An eight & a six year old that I regularly care for have small brown bodies. The younger boy is built: in the summer he sports a V shaped back & a chiseled six pack–complete with popping obliques! I imagine a coach seeing his body, seeing potential there, even dollar signs for college scholarships. When I asked the boys if they think they are fat, the beanpole shaped eight year old said, “no”, while the younger brother said, “yes”.

I’m not sure what would have been the most helpful thing for me to say in that moment. Had I let him know I too felt “fat” sometimes, I may have led him to think he was right about it, or, even worse, I may have confirmed the fatphobic lie that there is something inherently wrong with being “overweight”. Or if I immediately told him he wasn’t fat, I could lose that window into his mind, as he might recieve it as a rebuke or correction of the honest feeling he had shared with me. In an attempt to avoid complicating their already complex experience, I said nothing.

The inability to connect in a loving & accepting way with our bodies perhaps leads us to alienation from our inner voice as well. The body is our island on this sprawling planet. It’s the home of the mind: opinions, doubts, mirages, thoughts, the spirit: fear, hope, energies of the past & the future, & the heart: love, peace, rejection, grief. We operate out of these four-limbed (for most of us), 10-toed, hairy meat sacks. They are inseparable from our identity as humans.

Yet the body isn’t all that we are. “Fat” or “skinny” are reductive terms, used as static labels. What you are, what you aren’t. Unfortunately often they answer the question of who you are, who you aren’t.

I wonder if the boys at the table ever think about their dynamic characteristics, the ones that have more power to shape the nature of their lived experience. Compassionate, loving, forgiving, hopeful, strong, enduring, wise. Certainly they would feel more empowered if they were encouraged to cultivate those traits rather than find themselves in the elusive & reductive binary of “fat” & “skinny”. They could find the mark of their place in the human story written over every inch of their bodies.

 

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Whiteness

The past epoch of my life is divided primarily into two time frames: before Chile (and an onslaught of mental illness that flared during & after that life-abroad experience) & after Chile.

Before Chile I wrote & spoke very little about how not to be an asshole to black folks. Some of my dearest friends were black at the time, but when I was with white folks, I rarely defended their experience or contradicted the pro-institution (pro-white supremacist) statements that white friends were made. At the time, I thought this was respect for my elders (most of my white friends, particularly the uber-conservative & racist ones, are well older than I). Now, I see that it was something I didn’t do because, due to my personality type & experiences I had within my family’s structure, & in the conservative protestant church, I identified with black Americans more than with white. Subconsciously, I equated my experience to theirs. It was a very naive & mistaken way to see things. No matter how great my suffering was as a young person, it was in no way comparable to the American black experience. That’s an apples to oranges comparison. Yet in some ways this time was beautiful in a simplistic, temporary way. I really just enjoyed being with people who I saw as being very similar to myself,. I was able to show great empathy & compassion without doing the same annoying shit most white people do in interactions with POC. .

At that time, I saw my role in undoing the horrendous & continual effects of the translatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow laws, & the global history of racism against POC, as primarily involving my own interactions with black folks.

Fast foward to AFTER Chile. I returned from 5+ months of life abroad with severe mental illnesses on my tail. Integration back into United States university culture only heightened the depression I had, & gave birth to a new illness: Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Not only was I wrestling with an illness I had known since adolescence, now I grappled an unfamiliar monster.

Needless to say, this mental/emotional cocktail brought the worst out of me. (Rumi said that the wounds are where the light come in, but I’d like to ask him what he has to say regarding the times when the wounds are where the darkness gooshes out? Anyway…)

I returned to Little Rock, hoping to reconnect with friends (white, black, hispanic, asian–everybody!). In interactions with black folks I immediately noticed strain. Strain that hadn’t been there a year & a half ago when I had moved away. I heard myself saying things to black friends that had made me cringe to hear white folks say in the past. Things like, well, you just have to work harder sometimes, or mentioning skin color off hand. Also, I would compulsively do things to “help” them & their families, buzzing around like a grandma on thanksgiving, instead of sitting down, listening, showing compassion & love–like FRIENDS do. Only recently did I realize that I had moved from treating black folks as subjects of their own stories, to objects of mine.

That, friends, is the ego. The ego LOVES to scapegoat minorities. (See: all of western history.)

Noticing the lack of health in these relationships, & my growing frustrations as I continued to buy gifts & “help” these friends (unsolicited, mind you! This was all me) without allowing myself to see them as humans & receive the beauty of their stories & relationships, (Note that not many of my white friendships were going well at this point, either. However, it is easier to dance around the ego in spaces that offer no hierarchy of being/ingrained subject-object bluepring for interaction.) Finally, I took steps back & lowered my interaction as much as possible with POC.

Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Real bad.

Yet I am glad I distanced myself. No one deserves a friend who gives & gives only to get more frustrated with the person who is passively recieving ! No one deserves to be the warm body in a race-based ego-tango!

I wish I had some gorgeous epiphany to share regarding race & what I have learned, & how enlightened I am now. I sure don’t, though. The insights into why I did what I did, what racism had to do with it, & what I needed to do to stop being white supremacy’s puppet, are what I wanted to share here.

I hope to circle back around, as my  heart heals & the ego’s sway over me weakens, to those beautiful relationships that had been built on mutual trust, shared experience, & radical generosity (on everyone’s part), despite GREAT odds. But I will wait. I will wait until I can interact without responding to external impulses. I will wait until I can love my friends as people, as sacred individuals, not as sounding boards for my latest black/white realizations or observations. I will wait until I can have a conversation in which I smile due to joy — not because I have to somehow acknowledge the blackness of another person. I will wait until my anxiety is healed enough that I can carry my own weight in a conversation with someone who is different from me, & refrain from perpetuating racism in my words & actions.

Sometimes, all I can do is try not to be another white asshole. That’s it. I can’t save black people from the continual injustices. That was never my job. (I couldn’t anyway–talk about ego.) Sometimes I can’t even INTERACT with black folks without wearing a forced “I’m white, you’re black,” smile! That’s the embarassing truth. Racism lives in me, fuck it.

I show myself grace because I am human. I am allowed to be human, to mess up continually. I am just not allowed to be racist & EVER think that is okay. I am grateful to artists like Tayari Jones, Ava DuVernay, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Austin Channing Brown, & others, who give me a window into a world that is far different from the one I live in. By grace, I can learn.

Watching When They See Us helped me see that my role is to engage whiteness & white supremacy’s hold on my people. The incarceration of those 5 innocent boys happened because of two white women who spun a racist story about them, & pinned them with blame. We have to reckon with this part of our history, our present, & our future. It is my job to engage white folks more than it is my job to “rescue” black folks. It is my job to rail against the system. To vote for black life. To shop at black-owned businesses. To champion black authors. To defend truth & justice at dinner tables, post offices, classrooms, etc. It is my job to look my (white) loved ones in the face & say, “that was racism. That needs to change.” Over & over. Until things get better. I don’t do these things because of what happened in the past. I do these things because I want to live a good life. I don’t want to be an asshole. I want life to be better for EVERY GOD DAMN HUMAN ALIVE.

Until there is justice for all, there will not be peace for any of us.

 

Donate now to help make a change.

 

“Don’t say, “Oh, it’s not really race, it’s class. Oh, it’s not race, it’s gender. Oh, it’s not race, it’s the cookie monster.” You see, American Blacks don’t actually want it to be race. They woud rather not have racist shit happen. So maybe when they say something is about race, it’s maybe because it actually is? … Don’t say “We’re tired of talking about race” or “the only race is the human race.” American Blacks, too, are tired of talking about race. They wish they didn’t have to. But shit keeps happening. Don’t say, “Oh, racism is over, slavery was so long ago.” We are talking about problems from the 1960s not the 1860s. …Finally don’t put on a Let’s Be Fair tone and say, “But black people are racist too.” Because of course we’re all prejudiced…but racism is about the power of a group and in America it’s white folks who have that power. … White folks don’t get denied bank loans or mortgages precisely because they are white and black juries don’t give white criminals worse sentences than black criminals for the same crime and black police officers don’t stop white folk for driving while white….Try listening, maybe. Hear what is being said. And remember that it is not about you. American Blacks are not telling you (non-American Blacks) that you are to blame. They are just telling you what is. If you don’t understand, ask questions. Sometimes people just want to feel heard.”

~Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah , 2013, p. 403-406

 

*DISCLAIMER: This post is about ME. This is a personal blog. Racism & the black experience in the USA is not, never has been, & never will be about me, or any other white person. These are my encounters, my growths, my shames, my confessions as they relate to my whiteness & the injustices I see (& have learned about having happened) in the lives of black Americans. I do not & will not speak for any POC ever, & should not be seen as a spokesperson for the black experience. Never lived it. Never will. I am extremely limited in communicating around this issue, but I wanted to share my experience. It haunts my days & nights.*

Why Yoga?

Yoga matters to me, especially right now, not because it is something better than the other somethings. It is not the hobby to put all hobbies out of business. It is not the one true religion.

Yoga matters to me because it is what I have right now. In days past, I had Jesus. I had the words of Jesus, my sweet tattered Bible, and the Christian community (a tad unreliably but nonetheless,) surrounding me. Those days were imperfect but that study, the weekly and daily rituals (praying before meals, attending a service weekly, eventually spending hours in prayer and meditation), blessed me, and kept me from spinning my wheels in the mud of meaningless suffering. Now (praise ye the gods!), amidst hard financial and emotional times, I have the practice and study of Yoga.

I didn’t realize how much it has come to mean to me, and how much this ancient study/practice has blessed me until I was at a workshop in a neighboring town (holla at ya, Conway) yesterday, and heard a teacher talking about why she sticks to the more pure forms of yoga (the closer to Krishnamacharya–the better! was her angle). The impact it has on the mind. The connection to the Divine as the motivation behind it. The beautiful (albeit fundamentalist ;)) chants before and after each two-hour-long practice.

I realized as she spoke that if I did not have yoga right now, my little hands would feel awful empty. The presence of something on my palms–be it yoga or religion, study, or exercise–actually helps me open up to receive and release. Yoga, like the words of Jesus, draws out the Divine in me. These ancient prescriptions conjure up spells of light, love, and hope, and without spells, my days would be much darker. I shudder to think where I would have been without the words of Jesus nurturing my soul. This year, I have been to some dark places, and it is yoga that is helping me emerge.

At a Vinyasa (movement with the breath) class today, my Yoga teacher, Sherri, guided us through breath retention and some hella-difficult classes. After a brief savasana (corpse/resting pose), we engaged with her in listening to a song with repetitive lyrics in Sanksrit (holy language of ancient India/the yogis/inis). Singing along, I felt movement rise from my hips to my head and, in spirit as in body, I was at church again. Moving with the beautiful sound, we were alive together, plugged into source like blue Omaticaya Avatars seated, entranced, around Home Tree. Tears soaked my face as the words resonated with a magically unidentifiable part of my being:

Oh, my beloved
Kindness of the heart
Breath of life
I bow to you

And I’m coming home

Ong namo guru dev namo

Divine teacher
Beloved friend
I bow to you
Again and again

Lotus sitting on the water 
Beyond time and space 
This is your way 
This is your grace

Ong namo guru dev namo

Guru dev, guru dev namo

This is your way
This is your way
This is your way

(Bryan Kearney / Snatam Kaur / Thomas Barkawitz)

 

That is why yoga, for now. I am grateful for the teachers, preachers, and friends who create space that is safe and holy enough for the scared and lost parts of us to come home. Spaces that are big enough for tough emotions, and small enough for Love to fill, are resting places on the journey.

Praise be to Ganesh, remover of obstacles, praise be to Lord Shiva, inspiration of many asanas (yogic postures), praise be to Buddha, for being the Awakened One, and always, ever always, praise be to Jesus, for loving me first.

I’m coming home.

 

Grace & Peace,

 

Lydia Nomad Bush

Untitled Poem

 

Sometimes a woman must go

with herself

to a place

where she can be alive to the dark, unfriendly, & inhospitable

emotions that stir

beneath the white lie

of her smile.

 

She does this because her emotions put

her mind back into her body, where

she can breath,

create,

slither out of the snares

she walks into: naked doe dissected

day after day.

 

Every month she bleeds but it isn’t the blood that

costs her  

dignity.

It isn’t the blood that threatens her, nor is it the emotions.

The threat is the short list of predators:

ego, fear, and

denial of herself as the doe, of life

in this barren land

as the scalpel.

 

Sometimes a woman must go

with herself

to a place

where she can smile

in the dark.

Buried in Books

Buried in books is my natural state, I am hesitant to say it, but without a doubt of the truth. Though extroversion has dominated my personality and habits for the greater part of my young life, it is the navel-gazing, spiritually interested, booky introvert that continually emerges as the prevailing force. Currently I am reading 5 books*, and enjoying them all. I am certain there are droves of introverts out there who have me beat by stacks and piles, but I have weeded through small stacks brought home from the library to come comfortably back to a blend of spiritual and emotionally nourishing titles–radially diverse–that resonate in my Spirit.

All that to say, I need to write about Jesus. As the stresses of mental ill health, a new job, new home, and constant transitions have ebbed, this truer, quieter self has emerged and with it, this question of Jesus. That name, in English or in many other of the worlds’ languages conjures up strong feelings. I do not know exactly what feelings or to what extent, but I do know that people are strongly influenced by it, and thus the name “Jesus” does to the emotional body what food does to a group of hungry creatures: stirs things up.

My mind awoke during my time abroad in unexpected, broadening ways. My heart, however, grew dim & cold–choked out by fear & foreign stimuli. Jesus lived in that heart, the heart that seemed to shrivel & hardly beat for over a year. The idea of Jesus grew distant–has grown distant–as the words I stare at on the well-worn pages of my Bible fail to quench the thirst for intellectual satisfaction that arose in me.

People around me now seem more real than Jesus. I never met Jesus, never even saw him in a vision. He was a powerful historical figure, yes, but not extraordinarily different than any of the other ancient peace-seekers and bringers. My faith was real, the ideas of Jesus had been my Home on Earth for two decades. Was it okay to say “no more”? Was that what I was saying? But I wasn’t saying anything. I was listening to my inner Spirit and seeking to be true to it–as the idea of the Holy Spirit had taught me. And the last, most gut-wrenching question: Don’t I owe Jesus something for the time we spent together? Will Jesus be jealous as I move to a new Guru, to new exploration?

That isn’t Jesus’ nature, dear, my Spirit & Heart harmonize in my Mind. You have read the Bible enough times to know that to exact payment for beauty that springs from Loving Ideals is not of the Divine. Just as Jesus was of the Divine, so is your new Guru. That is why the Spirit within you has led you to these stacks of books in quest for renewed guidance, ready to receive the sharp blade of Truth.

So he is with me, it seems. I do not read the Bible, but there he is, guiding me as a remembrance of the form and nature of Love. Jesus will never not be with me. It is progress, however, to lay prayer and pleas on the altar, to burn them away in the fire of acceptance, of serene surrender to come-what-may.

The idea of Jesus was never meant to bring me guilt. Just as I was never meant to be a social butterfly who reads only magazines on airplanes. Jesus was there, Sri Yukteswar is here, and who knows who, what, or where the future holds?

Sat Nam (Truth is my identity).

 

Lydia Nomad

 

*The Power of Breath, Swami Saradananda

Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda

A Severed Wasp, Madeleine L’Engle (stunning; I will have finished it by this weekend.)

Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart

Cuentos que contaban nuestras abuelas, Campoy & Flor Ada

(I am blessed to have I’m Still Here, by Austin Channing Brown, and A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver, in my possession and up next on the reading list!)

Ahimsa & My Ego

Heart ablaze again, guide me. You I consult in times of humility. You I live by, you my internal North Star. The Jesus before and after they spoke to me of him. You, preservation of my relationships, hope of my days. 

This week I said the most powerful and dreaded word in the English language. Never expected that from myself, consciously or by accident. As a believer (believer in Spirit, that is, the world inside our world, always conspiring to make itself known to the physical beings), a mistake of this kind leads to deep introspection. In fact, since getting suspended from my job, I have passed days almost entirely alone and in deep reflection. How did I get so out of touch with my heart that a word contrary to who I have worked to become, slipped, like any other word, across my lips? That is Spirit. That is Spirit asking for attention. True sign of my need to pay attention. To get woke anew already.

You see, waking up to the pain of those around us isn’t a one time thing. It is an evolutionary (gradual; see Everything is Spiritual for a deeper explanation of this idea) process. I cannot one day decide that I will abide by the revolutionary ideals of Jesus and stand against the system of domination and expect myself to….abide there from that day forward. That is uncomfortable territory. That is asking the ego to bow. That is tough shit.

Violence happens to humans everyday in the form of unkind or careless words and actions: all the grub and grime of a groaning and restless world. Our fears are the first application process, so to speak, through which that daily violent input must pass. Fear we encounter on the daily  is a disruption which can become either ego fodder or transformation fuel. Author Deborah Adele says that there are two kinds of fear: instinctual fear, for the sake of survival, and fear of the unfamiliar (The Yamas and Niyamas, 2009). Those of us who exist on the more posh side of life (a place to live, some food to eat, very few–if any–daily threats to security, health, and freedom) are prone to over-entertainment of the second kind of fear. (It goes all the way back to the Old Testament IMO, when they scaped those poor goats all the way to the wilderness with everybody’s adultery and disrespect and masturbation tied on its’ back; A live metaphor for the weight of human sin.) When humans have time and/or security, they seem to begin to react to fears (real or unreal, rational or irrational–ego food all the same), and inevitably accumulate guilt. Well….who is around to interrupt this fear and guilt cycle? Who trips us up when we walk in the pride caused by this treacherous consumption of fear? Them. People (especially those at or near the top of the food chain) like to pin guilt on them. The ones without fear. The ones who face fear number one and still have the nerve to stand on street corners asking for money. The ones who do the-thing-I-never-would and dare to continue living instead of melting into the dehumanizing guilt-puddle we expect. It’s yuck, but it’s human. Or, tragically, entire people groups scapegoat other entire people groups because of the truth they tell about history (see: Black Experience in America). Humans do this, and then the ego, if unaddressed by empathy (or equal parts suffering), laps that stuff up like a thirsty puppy, and, like a puppy, it grows. Then, perhaps, it bites.

The same day I am dismissed from work, I reach up to grab a book or two off the Black History Month shelf at Terry library, and for the first time, insecurity chases my hand back into my pocket. Racist, I hear the voice of accusation inside my head. What are you trying to cover up? 

The ego growls and I snarl to myself: the injustice of it! That my innocent action should be inhibited by a single misunderstanding. One accusation.

One accusation, not even voiced outright had me suspended in inaction and egoism.

Violence to fear. Violence reaps fear. If I refuse to scapegoat this insecurity grounded in fear, where does it go?

Transformation fuel. To quote Gary Zukav (The Seat of the Soul.), “…we are held responsible for our every action, thought and feeling, which is to say, for our every intention.” Pay by what you outsource to others, or pay by running your own transformation race. The choice is always ours.

I have found that my ego’s kryptonite is understanding. When I take the time to understand, I overcome violence in myself, and in my interactions with others by the power of peace and by lofty aspirations of Love. Understanding often leads me to tears; this time I can’t help reflect on how hurtful this me-centered attitude must have been over the course of these callous months, culminating in my utterance of that unfit word, to my minority friends, or friends living on the corner of gender and racial discrimination* in this often hateful society. I acted contrary to the magnificent Eastern value of Ahimsa; nonviolence, and thus, contrary to my deepest self. I can do better. We can do better.

One accusation, result of my mistake, shaved ounces off my ego. No wonder the African American community has offered the world countless humble artists, truth-tellers, and thundering prophets. How many accusations do they hear in a day, my brothers and sisters next door, yet so far away from me? Drunk. Lazy. Racist. Dumb. Inadequate. Inferior. The list goes on, for them and for our Native American kindred. May my white ego stop short, as those of my friends are forced to every time they leave their homes.

So much to learn, so much loving left to do.

Gratitude & Hope for Ahimsa,

Lydia Nomad

 

*For more on this idea of Intersectionality visit The Liturgists