Everyday Gods and Goddesses

Things are a little crazy down here in New Orleans.

We are hosting one of the biggest parties in the U.S. just a week before Mardi Gras, the other biggest party in the U.S.  Everything is a little out of control.  And now the tourists are coming.

And this party is here to watch two teams of grown men aggress each other for three hours over an oblong ball, which is also crazy.  It doesn’t even bounce.  And there are so many rules!  I have to admit, I’ve become quite the Saints fan in the past 10 years, and I know the difference between a flea flicker and play-action, but really?  Really?

And on top of that, our society idolizes these men.  It worships them.  They become role models for upper-classes and poor kids alike.  Their physical prowess is amazing, certainly. Their training and dedication is inspirational.  But god-like?

How often have we seen these players fall and fail and be human? Their humanity has expressed itself in scope from Michael Vick’s tremendous ethical lapse to our dear Steve Gleason who suffers with ALS.  We put these athletes on pedestals, leaving them that much further to fall.  It’s a delicate business.

So we must be cautious who we honor, worship, and devote our lives to.  (Mom will hate that sentence-ending preposition.) We must be thoughtful.  Here’s the thing: we can idolize anyone.  We get to choose in whom we put that faith. (Welcome, mom.) (She’s a grammar goddess, y’all.)  We can bequeath any person superhuman powers if we believe what they do is MORE than we think humans can do.  What if you decided to put that faith in yourself?

Just for today: how do you idolize yourself? What do you do that’s MORE than humans do? How can you live your life in devotion to yourself? What’s your superhuman power?

If it’s surviving traffic and crowds and patience, you’re in luck.  Because I think these next couple weeks are gonna be crazy.

Mantra:  Om Nama Shivaya

We honor Shiva, and the divine power inside us that transforms and transcends.

Playlist forthcoming.

The Challenge of a yogi

Nearly a year ago, almost to the day, I started my yoga teacher training. “Soul School” at Wild Lotus Yoga, in New Orleans.

Yes, it’s really called Soul School.  I’m not making that up.  Yes, you’re allowed to make fun of me.

I make fun of me, and laugh a lot about being “woo-woo,” and am self-conscious and self-aware, and simultaneously feel the pressure of being an evolved spiritual being.  Twice a week (or more, if I’m lucky) a handful of trusting folks sit in a room with me while I tell them to contort their bodies into odd shapes, and try to inspire them to live their lives in ways that make them the most fulfilled.

No pressure.

The past year has been the best and hardest and most inspiring year of my life.  But let me begin at the beginning:

I’m a smart cookie.  As a kid, I realized that if I couldn’t be pretty I could be smart.  As I got older, I hid behind “smart” — using it as protection from relationships, vulnerability, and other parts of life.  The trick about “smart” is that spirituality and smart don’t really go well together.  It’s tough to think about god, you can’t reason your way into faith.  God isn’t logical.  Faith doesn’t make sense.

I was a militant atheist in high school.  My lack of faith was a point of pride.  Nothing annoyed me more than the smug self-confidence of Believers.

In college, I found my depression.  Two years of sitting on the couch watching reruns of Law & Order when I wasn’t in class or at work finally sent me to therapy.  I had always been happy, cheerful, loved life.  Depression is an illness that strips away your joy — but that’s another topic of another entry.

I lucked out and found an amazing therapist who trained at the Jung Institute.  Over five years, I had the joy of being guided through reconnecting with all the aspects of myself — discovering that I didn’t have to be just “smart.”

About the same time, I started practicing yoga.  First, it was just “exercise.”  It was a good way to sweat, and I had a knack for it — I was naturally flexible, expressive, and introspective.  I was not interested in all the woo-woo Atman nonsense.

And then The Thing happened.  Everything I had believed about the way things work (governments, families, disasters, life…) was undermined in one fell swoop when the levees breached and my city flooded.  Faith is mandatory in situations like that.  Faith is what’s left when your beliefs are stripped away.

My practice continued.  I began hearing my teachers talk about things like “non-violence” and “lovingkindness.”  I learned sanskrit mantras and sang at kirtans.  My practice continued.  And after some length of time, I realized my practice was stalled.  I was stuck.  I knew I needed a boost, and I hoped that Soul School would do it.

Over eight months, I learned about my physical practice, I learned about my breathing, but I also learned about grace.  I learned some pretty simple ways to engage with my own spiritual side.  I learned about my faith.

I didn’t know what faith looked like, for me.  I still don’t know what god is, to me.  But now, I get to explore it, for myself, for the rest of my life.

Yoga means “to yoke.” It’s connection. Relationship.

Soul School taught me to yoke myself to faith, and to discover my spirituality.  It asked me questions about what’s really important, what brought me joy, where my power was.

This is not an essay about how you should go take a yoga class, or why God is good.  This is an essay about self-discovery.  And learning about yourself is the hardest and most inspiring thing you get to do in your life.  The best part?  You get to do it for the rest of your life.

Katrina + 6

It’s been a quiet week here in New Orleans, my home town…

That’s all I could think today, driving home from yoga.  “It’s been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon, my home town…” I grew up listening to Garrison Keillor.  I grew up falling asleep to tapes of A Prairie Home Companion.  If you didn’t already realize I was raised by liberal recovering-hippies, well… now you know.

It’s been a quiet week.  And today just happened.  Again.  Six years ago there was The Thing that happened. On the Fifth Anniversary everybody still talked about it and did their mourning and mooning and moaning about how people should stop talking about the The Thing.  But today, on the Sixth Anniversary, nothing happened.

It’s been a quiet week in New Orleans, my home town… the girls and I got together on Saturday, with late brunch drinks (Champagne + Blueberry-Pomegranate is just as delightful as it sounds) and watched My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (which is actually far more disturbing than it sounds), and I got day drunk and fell asleep at 8pm.  Sunday I made groceries and went to the grand opening of the New Orleans Healing Center.

This morning, I woke up, stopped by the coffee shop, and went to work.  The air’s a little smoky, but other than that it was just another day.  Just another Monday.  It wasn’t even manic.  Our staff meeting was practically calm.

It’s been a quiet week.

And yet, today still feels like the beginning of a new year.  It’s been (whatever 365 times 6 is… 1900 or so) days since Katrina hit and then the levees and all that.  I wonder: will it always be like this?  Will today always be a sacred day, no matter what?  Is this what it feels like when you lose a child or a spouse and their death-day passes and you get mad at everybody who doesn’t remember? And will I always feel guilty about being angry about that?

When will I start measuring years again from January 1?  Or at least from my birthday? Will that ever happen?  My life is still divided into BK and AK.

As I drove to work this morning, I realized 80% of the people I work with didn’t live here during The Thing.  There’s one kid who was in college at the time… But otherwise, it’s a bunch of folks who all lived out of harm’s way who work there.  Even the handful that lived in New Orleans didn’t live *in it*.  I hate that I care about that.  I am on my way to becoming that 70 year-old lady who talks about The Big One, and how none of y’all kids really understand.

But in reality, they don’t really understand.

It was a quiet week in New Orleans, my home town… I suppose I should be thankful for that.

What I learned about life from… Acting Class

My undergraduate degree is in Theatre.

Yeah, that’s right, “theatre,” with an “re.”  Just so you know how pretentious I am. Which, ironically, is not that much; I’m just a slave to the right word. Theater is a place. Theatre is the transformative artistic experience of interpreted literature that elicits an emotional transcendence. (I had to reinforce the pretentious thing. Couldn’t help it).

I was trained as a professional actress. Five days a week for three years, I started my day the same way: with the same 20-something 20somethings. We all wanted to learn how to Act. At some point we all had dreams of being the next Sarah Bernhardt or Tom Cruise. We all did our Animal Work, resulting in a literal and proverbial zoo. (If I remember correctly Ebs Burnough’s snake ended up cornering my tamarind monkey underneath a chair. It was, actually, pretty traumatizing). We used metaphors to work on Chekhov; my Masha was “a runaway train.” We had our fair share of Meisner repetitions, which is especially amusing during understated Pinter dialogue. (“Would you like some tea?” “Would I like some tea?” “Would you like some tea?” “Would I like some tea?” “Would you LIKE some TEA?” and so forth..)

The reality of the 21st century is your undergraduate degree is pretty irrelevant. With few exceptions, your BA or BS (or BSSP in my case) is simply a necessity – you will not be considered for most well paid positions without finishing college, but that’s about it. It is now simply a hurdle, no longer a certification.  The first day of our program, my acting teacher – who was also the department chair – reminded us that theatre is actually an excellent training for almost anything. And he’s right. I often tell people I have a degree in collaboration, communication, and executing projects on time and under budget. That’s pretty relevant in any position.  (He also told us not to sleep with each other.  I find that’s still a pretty good tidbit.)

I often don’t get into the nitty-gritty of what an acting class is really like, because it perpetuates a certain stereotype that all actors are crazy and dumb and self-indulgent. Which we are. But who needs to reinforce that?

But my acting teacher taught me countless lessons about far more than “just” acting – about work, and about life. These are just a few.

1. “There are three parts of your life: your work, your primary relationship, and your home. If two outta three are good, you will be happy.”

This was part of a series of lectures our senior year designed to prepare us (aka: frighten us) for the reality of being a working actor. “Your first years out of school your working life will not be fulfilling – so find a great apartment and a lover because otherwise you’ll be miserable.” I have often returned to this advice over the years because it’s accurate no matter what your profession. Work sucks? Make your house a refuge and go on a date. Love life sucks? Pour yourself into work and repaint your bedroom. It’s a simple triad, but its true — and more importantly, it works.

2. “What do you know about this?”

I heard my teacher repeat this phrase a thousand times. A successful actor simply presents a mirror to the audience – and shows them themselves. In order to do that, as an actor, you have to recognize yourself in a role. You must be human. You must reveal yourself in the most vulnerable, honest, sometimes ugly ways. (It’s no wonder that so many actors and artists are alcoholics and drug addicts – the simultaneous pressure and fear of this can be unbelievable destructive.)

Now, in my day-to-day life, when I approach something somehow foreign, something scary, possibly insurmountable, I am able to stop and ask: “What do I know about this?” What part of this is familiar? Where can I find a toehold in this seemingly unscalable mountain? Because there is always a toehold. And once you find one, you find another. And before you know it, you’re halfway up.

3. “Let it land.”

This is a hard lesson to learn, especially when you repeat the same lines over and over, night after night. You already know the realization the audience should have – you have had it with other audiences a hundred times already. But each and every audience is different, new, and you take them on that journey for the first time. When you deliver an especially key line – Let it land. This is so true in everyday life I cannot emphasize it enough. In my current profession (fundraising) it is an invaluable lesson. If you can present to someone all of the information, with just enough of a hint, and you can restrain yourself enough to Let it Land – they will come to the conclusion on their own to support you. You have not convinced them, you have helped them convince themselves. This is vitally important, because once you go away – they are still convinced. And, possibly more important, they are now in the position to convince others.

4. “Work in the High Thin Branches.”

This is just as scary in real life as it is on stage. It’s so easy in a role to “phone it in;” to play at an emotion instead of playing it.  The metaphor here is this: when you’re climbing a tree, the safe place to stop is in the first fork in the trunk.  The branches are thick as your torso, and there to support you and if you do fall, it’ll only be four or five feet and you’re likely to not break any bones.  The higher you get, the more flimsy your support, the more careful you must be – because one misstep and suddenly you’re plummeting to your death.  So why on earth would anyone climb to the treetops?  First, because of the view.  It’s amazing what you can see from up there.  And, possibly more importantly, the exhilaration.  As an actor, it’s amazing what you can see and experience in the “high, thin branches.”  It’s amazing how you feel.
The same is true in life.   The greater the risk, the great the return.  If you always stick to what you know, and where you feel safe, you will not grow, you will not develop, and you will not accomplish great things.  There are thousands of adages that encourage this (‘leap and the net will appear’ and all that) – and I think there are so many because it is so very difficult to do.  The fact of the matter is, working in the “high, thin branches” can be exhausting – always watching your step, getting vertigo from looking down – but it can also be the most fulfilling place to work.

5. Don’t be a professional artist unless you have to be.

Our summer reading before our acting class started, we were assigned Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke.  This is not an easy read, for so many reasons.  The core of the first letter is: Do not do this because you want to do it.  Do it because you have to do it.  I’m pretty convinced that half of my acting teacher’s job was to weed out the weak ones and convince the rest of us that acting was the worst profession.  In reality, it’s the best lesson he could have taught me.  There is no romance in constant instability.  There is no pleasure in auditions (a good ratio: 100 auditions to 1 callback.  Imagine if that were a dating scenario, or any other job search). Acting is brutal.  And somewhere in those three years, I realized I simply was not cut out to be a professional actor.  There were other things that were too important to me.

The next thing he taught me, though, was just as important and is still core to my sense of self now: You will always be an actress.  Getting paid for it is a silly way to judge whether you are something or not.  And frankly, the most important things to me, those most core to who I am, are things I will never be paid to do.  That’s okay.  Your job is just a part of your life’s work.

6.  Do not put anything in an email you wouldn’t want the world to read.

Alas, this was not a lesson he was trying to teach, but it was taught all the same.  The year after I graduated, and two years before his impending retirement, my acting teacher sent an email to one of his students.  I cannot say I know the full details – nor do I feel comfortable repeating any, rumor mill being what it is, and all – but he sent an inappropriate email to a student.  You can only imagine the ensuing drama, but needless to say he went on a year-long sabbatical and then retired and I have no idea what happened to his pension or anything…   And honestly, I have learned this lesson myself once or twice.  We all make mistakes.

And that, perhaps, is the best lesson my teacher ever taught me.  For three years, I think he brought us on a personal and spiritual journey about learning who we were, and what we were capable of.  Nearly ten years later, I still draw on the things I learned from him almost every day.  And yet, he made one bad decision that ended his career.  Do I choose to remember him by that?  No.  I don’t.  But instead, I choose to remember him as a human being.  All his flaws, all his idiosyncrasies, but also all the joy he brought us, and challenges he made, the lectures and the encouragement and the love.

On Happiness

Yesterday evening, I was sitting with a dear friend at one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, Café Degas. It’s a little french restaurant with killer french onion soup and a great bartender. Uncle Nick makes the best Sazerac in town, and gracious lords over a bar of just four stools — and it may be my favorite bar in town.

Chez Degas, as we call this little corner of Faubourg St. John, is host to the best character study in New Orleans. I have sat there many a night, whether with friends or alone, and met the most incredible residents and visitors and exchanged stories and always learned something. The first night I visited it was almost at closing: I had my first sazerac ever (and after many, many more, I stand by my prior endorsement) and met a horse trainer who makes his living at the track nearby and the Commodore of the Southern Yacht Club. I have sat in one of those few stools discussing crime in New Orleans with a staff photographer of the Times-Picayune, and the joys of dining alone with an art director in the burgeoning local film industry.

But last night, I sat with an old friend and a new friend, and we met Mohsen. A slight man, with wire-framed glasses that are always a little tinted, Mohsen has a palpable accent despite immigrating here from Iran 33 years ago. He came to the U.S. alone at the age of 17, and has created his own life, which now involves working seven days a week at a coffeeshop he owns, that I happen to love.

Mohsed overheard us talking to Uncle Nick about the recent catastrophe in Norway. We all hypothesized on why someone would kill 80 (or 90+, from varying reports) innocent young people — regardless of your political beliefs. The rumor is that he was afraid of an Islamic takeover of Europe.  It was at this point Mohsed made an ironic comment about “those muslims – never trust them” – which is clearly a joke – and that set us out on a conversation about how many people are killed every day, every year, in every country in the world.  He referred to hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq, I thought about Sudan and a missing generation.

He made an apt point: at least 16,000 are killed in the U.S. every year.  He feels safer walking the streets of Tehran than the streets of New Orleans.  He may be right.  His underlying message – we all live in danger, and killing happens everywhere.  We are not told about all of the fear-making things because they aren’t always good news (as in, news that interests people – not new that is good) – so it’s easy to have a skewed perspective on our own reality, let alone foreign reality.

My friend Erica changed the subject to Mohsed’s life – in the typical way I think that U.S.-born Americans are fascinated with the American Dream we have never really had to pursue.  He is impressive – building his own business out of nothing, and now about to close for a month and travel to see family all over the country.

Erica asked the question: “Are you happy?”

Mohsed, without hesitation: “What is happiness?”  It seemed a useless question to him, unnecessary. “Define Happiness.  Tell me what this ‘happiness’ is?”


This has been a constant challenge for me, especially of late.  How much happiness is about fulfillment?  How much happiness comes from a decision to be happy?  Is it about being content with what we have, and striving towards a Buddhist idea of non-attachment?  Does our capitalist-commericialist society constantly telling us (via advertising) that we are missing something, do not have enough, and are not enough set us all up for constant discontent?

Is that discontent the secret to happiness?  Is working to overcome challenges the secret to being happy?

Or, as Mohsed went on to imply, is Happiness a figment? Is it some imaginary concept we have all been promised to give us something to do?

There’s a lot of philosophy written about this, and I don’t pretend to be well read in all of it.  But it is something we all constantly mull over, I believe.

As someone who manages her depression, this is a particularly fascinating question to me.  I’ve talked some about my depression publicly, and would like to talk more about it.  I am especially fascinated by the growing proportion of people who are diagnosed with some variety of mood disorder (depression, anxiety, and so forth) – and with the suggested reasons why.

Part of my depression comes from a feeling of paralysis about how to be happy.  And that being happy is the “correct” state — so when one is unhappy, one is incorrect.  Where did this come from?  When did this start?

There is no easy way to wrap up this thought.  I am thankful for Mohsed, for asking this question: “What is this ‘happiness’?”

Sickness: Reality Check

I have been sick.  Like, actually sick.  For four days.  And it’s killing me.

Well, it’s not actually killing me.  That is the point of this post.

After having a vague sore throat for a few days, it hit me in the middle of a work day.  That “I have to go lay down RIGHT NOW,” feeling.  This may be my body’s way of telling me that I’m sick, because I’ve felt it before.  So at 3pm on a Thursday, I went home and got into bed, and basically stayed prone for the next 48 hours. I’ve had visits from terrific friends to bring me breakfasts and dinners and movies and well wishes.

This morning a marathon ran past my house.  It felt sort of like pouring salt into a wound.  There I was, watching hundreds of people run thousands of (cumulative) miles, and I am tired after standing up for 30 minutes.

A good and wise friend told me “the exhaustion is so hard to deal with when you are used to being on the go.”  She is quite right.

This makes me realize how spoiled I really am.  Every time I’m sick, I think of people who live with this level of exhaustion on a daily basis.  I think about those chronic fatigue, or fibromyalgia, or chemo or… anything.  Exhaustion is a major symptom of so many illnesses, and so often we judge those suffering – claiming it’s “all in their head.”  We have developed a bias in our society towards people who don’t need to sleep and can work 20 hour days and be superhuman, that we begin to think that’s real.  Or even possible.  So someone who isn’t able to do those things is somehow not just deficient, but delinquent.

So here I am, laying on my sofa, blogging (first world problems, anyone?), feeling sorry for myself because my house isn’t as clean as it should be and I have to go back to work tomorrow after not having a “real” weekend.  And disappointed because I wasn’t out running 13 or 26 miles this morning.  When did it become ok to feel that being sick makes me deficient?  As opposed to simply human. Mortal.

When is our hubris going to catch up with us, as a society?  When is my hubris going to catch up with me, as a sane human being?

 

 

What I Learned About Life… from Weight Watchers

I don’t talk about it all that much anymore.  My history as a “fat girl” stays pretty hidden – I may even be a little embarrassed, or possibly even ashamed, of it.

So for the fun of it, I’ll out myself once and for all: I am a fat girl.  I was 9’8″ when I was born, and I looked like the Michelin baby when I was 6 months old.  I always thought I was a fat kid growing up (I wasn’t, ironically – but that’s one of the lessons, so hang tight).  I started dieting in high school, and I lost some weight, but by the time I graduated I was 215.  I’m 5’6″.  It was not pretty.  I was muffin topping out of my size 18s.  Not. Pretty.

I went off to college, and thought about it a lot, and was conflicted about it, as many young women are about their weight – regardless of reality.  I lost the Freshman 15 – mostly because I lived in a 4th floor walkup and dorm food is lousy.  But 5 years later, when I came back to New Orleans, I was still in the same place.  Fat.

It was then, thanks in part to a very dear friend and soulmate, I went to Weight Watchers.  We went together.  We were both heavy, we both wanted to do something about it.  I lost 40 pounds, she lost 50.  She still had more to lose, and that was about when she lost track. But I became “lifetime” in 2005, and I have maintained at least 25# of that loss ever since.  I changed how I ate.  I started running, and changed how I thought of myself — instead of being a “theatre kid,” I realized I had some athleticism.  Katrina threw a wrench in a lot of it, and I’ve had some weights better than others.

Full disclosure: I am not at my goal weight currently.  I could stand to lose 20 pounds.  And so that leads to lesson #1…

1. It’s all about the journey.  When you’re “losing” on program, it’s easy to stay motivated.  When you have a destination in mind, when you have something to work towards, there’s tons of reinforcement.  When you arrive, it’s incredibly exciting.  And pretty quickly, it gets boring.  Contrary to what you thought, you STILL have to work just as hard (if not harder, on occasion) to “stay at goal.”  It’s like running to stand still.  Initially, that’s demoralizing.  Until you have your first taste of regaining, and then you realize: it’s about setting new goals. It’s about ALWAYS working to better, always striving towards something.  Our goals change in life, but you must always have a next step – a higher height. After I hit goal, I started running.  I’ve run 4 half-marathons.  I think part of the reason I haven’t run a full marathon is because then I’ll have to set a new goal.

2. Feedback, not failure.  Weight Watchers teaches some of the best positive thinking around.  This is one of my favorites.  It’s easy to beat yourself up when you have a setback.  A job interview doesn’t go how you want.  That perfect first date never calls you for a second. When you’re working really hard at something and it doesn’t work out (whether because of luck or just imperfect behavior) – its easy to give up.  It is human nature to allow your brain to go down that negative path, into the “spin cycle” of self-defeat.  And very quickly you realize you’re on a completely separate track going somewhere you don’t want to go.  When something doesn’t go your way, take a step back.  Stop asking and dwelling on what you did wrong, and ask instead “How could I have done that differently?”  This is also about always looking forward instead of looking back.  Feedback, not failure.

3. If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.  This is a phrase borrowed, of course, and one that I recently got in a fortune cookie.  A very similar one, that I also love, is the Einstein quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  If you don’t like the results, change what you’re doing.  Period.

4. Don’t ever assume anything about another person’s journey.  In a Weight Watchers center, when a “thin” woman walks in, there is often a vague feeling of disdain that is almost palpable. “What is she doing here? She doesn’t need to be here.”  It’s amazing how quickly we judge someone by how they appear.  It only takes once or twice for that “thin” woman to stand up in a meeting and say she lost 80+ pounds that you start to get it.  In many ways, you need meetings more once you hit goal weight.  You must constantly remotivate yourself.  Don’t judge a book by its cover.  And just because a woman is thin, doesn’t mean she wasn’t once fat.

5. Finally, just because a woman looks “thin” doesn’t mean she’s happy with her weight or her appearance or her clothes fit.  I alluded to this above, and I suspect it will fascinate me my whole life.  I am relatively happy at my current weight, ironically.  I can shop in “normal” stores, I still think I’m attractive and sexy, and it seems men do too.  My physical self-esteem is tied far more to how I treat my body (sleeping enough, exercising enough, eating right) than how it looks.  And I have known women who are perfect size 6s who are far more troubled about their weight than I ever was.  So the last lesson: It’s all in your head.

This is common self-help speak.  You can change your reality if you can change how you think.  It’s that last part that I don’t even have an inkling about how to do.  Suggestions welcome.