Tuesday, December 30, 2008


How do we respond to human suffering and devastation? What do we do in the face of hundreds dying in Gaza, and over a thousand injured?

When I encounter suffering, it naturally brings up—mostly unconscious–memories of my own suffering. This is the root of empathy: connecting my pain to yours, and understanding that we bear pain for each other. But how do I respond next?

When I see photos of bombing victims, I may want to retreat to the litany of my own victim stories. I joined a Facebook group which suggests we turn our profile photos black to protest the current assault on Gaza, and I invited all my Facebook friends to participate. Not surprisingly, an acquaintance questioned this group, asking whether they also protest violence against non-Arabs, listing numerous Arab offenses over the years.

She’s completely right to question all forms of violence. But if I give in to the hobgoblin of equivalence when it comes to suffering and violence, I come that much closer to the mindset of tit for tat, eye for an eye. If I engulf myself in my own stories of victimhood, it enables the cycle of violence to continue.

It’s tempting to chant the mantra of victimhood. We have all been traumatized, to different degrees. While some have suffered far more than others, others may carry the legacy of trauma through stories told, retold, or denied and buried by parents and grandparents.
When I bury myself in my own suffering, I close myself off to the suffering of others. I buy into my own victim stories, I invest myself in them, and I seek balance and redress. I justify revenge.

The respective victim stories dominate Israel/Palestine. Over the past few generations, the Palestinians, after living under occupation for decades, now identify with their victimhood to the same degree as the Israelis, which creates desperation, hatred, and hunger for revenge, promoting conditions ripe for suicide bombers and recruitment into militant groups.
Not until we can lay down our own suffering and attend to the suffering of others will violence stop. Compassion and love are big enough to swallow up pain. Compassion for the other needs to outweigh our own victim stories.

Gandhi taught his followers to bear pain, to not run away from it, and above all not to retaliate in the face of pain. I cannot wait for the other to lay down their arms or for the tally to even out; I have to set the precedent. Through the path of nonviolent resistance, I strive to evoke empathy rather than anger.

Will I suffer? Likely. Will I be killed? Maybe. But since January, 2000, when the current Intifada began,
1173 Palestinian children have been killed, as well as 123 Israeli youth. How can we ask children to offer their lives if we’re not willing to offer our own? The path of nonviolence is not painless.

However, in addition to
changing the circumstances that provoke violence–dismantling the settlements, restoring all rights–nonviolence is the only way to create lasting harmony. We continually work for justice, but even if justice is slow to come, we can apply the principles of nonviolence and strive to live them out.

I use my practice of yoga asanas to learn how to relate to pain. Without abdicating awareness, I learn to be dispassionate toward the temporary sensations of muscles stretching and contracting. I learn to be with pain and not fear it, taking homeopathic doses of pain. Through this work, I break down the layers of trauma, personal and ancestral.

What is my victim story anyway? As a victim, I identify with a part of myself which is illusory, temporary, and superficial. I mistake myself for the actor playing me on stage. In reality, I constantly shift, evolve, and transform as iterations and expressions of a universal spirit. I am the Korean American woman in Milwaukee, and I am the Israeli child, the Palestinian child.

Meanwhile, I sit cozily at my desk in my heated room. My belly is full, no bombs land near my riverside bungalow. I send emails and make phone calls to our president and State Department, but I’m not on a plane to Gaza to serve as a human shield or bandage wounds. And what of the suffering in Congo, Afghanistan, Darfur, Iraq? Not to mention the homeless in my own city, gun violence and the overwhelming violence of poverty? All I have this moment are these few words, my yoga practice and a constant prayer: open, open open my eyes, open my heart.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Racial Getting Married

We took a family outing to the Downer Theatre on Thanksgiving weekend to see “Rachel Getting Married.” While I loved many things about the film, it also troubled me. My response has nothing to do with the much-discussed style of the Dogma 95 film-making, but with its little-discussed portrayal of race.

Here are some things I’m wondering:
Did Jenny Lumet write Sidney as black?
Were the black characters meant to be stereotypes?
Why is there no acknowledgement of race in any of the dialogue?
How might this film be different if it was directed by a black filmmaker?
Or a woman filmmaker?
Why samba dancers?
Finally, what’s with the saris?

It turns out screenwriter Jenny Lumet did not write Sidney as black. As a mixed race woman (the granddaughter of Lena Horne), she said “the only time I ever thought about the race issue when writing the script was when I thought about making the characters of Rachel and Kym the children of an interracial couple. But I decided not to because I was afraid people would say that that was the reason Kym became a crazy drug person.” (http://www.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2008/10/04/in_family_screenwriter_sees_true_colors_of_connection)

Her only consideration of race was her fear of it being used as an unflattering stereotype. The casting choices were made by director Jonathan Demme. He initially chose a white actor to play Sidney, but that actor declined because of another project. Demme says he chose Tunde Adebimpe for being likable, for his “rock and roll allure….[and] I was excited by the fact that it made for an interracial marriage because that moves me.”

Now, ask any person of color if they’ve ever been selected for these reasons. We all know certain people of color are “likable,” cool with a “rock and roll allure,” and others are scary or geeky or too “ethnic.” One of the most common ways to describe Asian women is “nice,” as in “Oh, I know so and so. She’s soooo nice.” We are prized for our likability. That’s why we make such good nannies and maids and concubines. People of color can also be ingenious and daring and complex, but those movie roles are fewer.

And how many times have we been chosen because it makes the white people around us “excited” and moved? At one conference on multiculturalism, one well-meaning white friend approached me, her eyes nearly welling with tears, to thank me, with heart-felt sincerity, for being part of her community. OK, you’re welcome, but why do I feel vaguely colonized?

The casting of Adebimpe pleased me, except the script didn’t refer to his race at all, the same way the saris worn by the bride and bridesmaids was never explained or addressed. I did notice that all the really grounded characters, the caretakers, the organizers, the kind but firm rehab nurse, the soldier, were people of color. Even the toasts to Sidney were about how dependable and stable he was. Which is to say that the brown characters were idealized, not three-dimensional. Even flattering stereotypes diminish us. “I thought all Koreans were smart,” someone commented when I did something goofy. Demme could afford to make Sidney black, because he was flat. Basically they were all bit roles to give the movie a certain look and feel, like we see in advertising.

The filmmaker and writer claim the interracial marriage is not worthy of mention. They have friends of every race and know interracial couples and they don’t sit around talking about race. Does this remind you of the Obama campaign? After Obama’s lauded speech encouraging us to have a national dialogue on race, his campaign made no more mention of race until the acceptance speech. The only voices on the media addressing race were ones insisting that it didn’t matter at all. But to me it all felt like denial.

It’s OK to be colored, runs the subtext; it’s even super cool and desirable to be colored, as long as we can pretend not to notice. As long as we don’t have to, God forbid, talk about it.

Not noticing stuff and living in denial is after all a theme of “Rachel Getting Married,” a movie about a dysfunctional family. The problem is the filmmakers didn’t see their multi-culti paste-ons that way. The filmmakers created the film in a cloud of denial like the one their characters live in.

Demme set out to portray “the best, best, best wedding ever.” At the altar, Sidney sings a worshipful love-at-first-sight Neil Young song to Rachel. That felt odd to me, until I realized, oh yeah, Sidney was written as white. Lumet commented that the song in the script was by AC/DC but the rights to the song were outrageously expensive. Demme called on his friend, Neil Young, who accepted a pittance for the use of his song. In fact, Demme invited all his musician friends to the backyard barbeque. The party was a checklist of cultural appropriation and exoticizing. Those black people, aren’t they fabulous entertainers? Oh, look, a token Asian couple! But just one is plenty. And aren’t those dark-skinned dancers in their thongs gorgeous!

Where is the boundary between appropriation and assimilation? When can I wear a sari without being Indian? Not long ago in America, Italians were considered people of color, and Italian food was spicy and exotic. Now, we all eat Italian food weekly if not daily, while Italian-Americans are included in every sector of mainstream society. But Italians are European, and many are fair-skinned. Have Mexicans benefitted from the same process of assimilation? Have the Chinese or other Asians?

Do we live in the world that Lumet and Demme have created? Are we welcome at this wedding party? Are we beyond race? Am I a racist for asking these questions?

Let’s repair the racial harm we’ve done, stop profiting from exploitation of people of color, give immigrants rights, create real equality, and then and only then, can we dance samba in our saris.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Here is a new recipe we tried out at Thanksgiving. Unfortunately we baked it last minute and didn't get to refrigerate it. However, the next day, it was fabulous. It's vegan if you use dairy-free chocolate chips, sugar-free, and can be gluten-free as well. Everyone can eat it!

Chocolate-Pecan Pudding Pie with Nut Crust
adapted from Bryant Terry’s recipe at http://www.theroot.com/id/48938

1 cup almonds
1 cup pecans
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour or gluten-free flour
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup dry unsweetened coconut
8 large dates, pitted and chopped
1/4 cup coconut oil

· Preheat oven to 325°F.
· Combine the almonds, pecans, flour and salt in a food processor with a fitted metal blade, and grind to a fine meal. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and add the coconut. Place the dates and coconut oil in the food processor and mix until the dates form into a gooey mass, about 1 minute. Add the dry ingredients back into the food processor and process until all ingredients are mixed well and starts to form into dough.
· Transfer the dough to a 9-inch pie tin. With clean hands, knead for a minute or so to ensure that the oil is evenly distributed. Press the dough into the pan, making sure that the bottom, sides and rim are covered. (The sides should be slightly thicker than the rest of the tin.) With a fork, prick several holes into the bottom of the crust. Set aside.

For the filling:
3/4 cup soy milk
1/4 cup arrowroot
1/2 banana
3/4 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup coconut oil
1 1/2 cups pecans, chopped
1/2 cup dry unsweetened coconut

· In a blender, combine the soy milk and arrowroot and purée for 30 seconds. Add the banana and purée for 15 seconds. Set aside.
· Place a mixing bowl over a small pot of simmering water to melt the chocolate chips and coconut oil (solid under 76 degrees). Pour in the blender contents, maple syrup, vanilla, pecans and coconut. Mix well. Scrape into the crust with a rubber spatula and spread evenly.
· Place the pie on a cookie sheet. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until filling jiggles only slightly. Cool, then refrigerate at least two hours.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Generosity in an Age of Uncertainty

(I wrote this for the December 2008 newsletter of my church, Plymouth UCC.)

I have everything

Nothing do I lack
All I give comes back
--sung to the tune of “Ego Sum Pauper”

I learned these alternative lyrics from a woman steeped in feminist, Earth-centered spirituality. I sing it to myself as a reminder of our interconnection and interdependence with other beings. I sing it to remember that nothing is ever lost or gained, but part of an infinite cycle of regeneration.

But do I really believe it? Can I truly give as the Earth does, ever recycling and renewing? Can I give as Jesus does, confident that there will be enough loaves and fishes for all? Can I give as Jesus asks us to in Matthew 25: clothing, feeding, and nurturing all those in need?

Too often, I proceed from a sense of scarcity rather than abundance. I want to hunker down and protect my own rather than share my resources. After all, how can I be sure my own needs and the needs of my family will be met if I don’t hoard and scrimp? Can I continue to pledge to the church, keep up community donations, and do volunteer work? Perhaps this is the year to cut back on both spending money and giving time.

I pray that, in economically troubled times like these, God will imbue me with the assurance that I can indeed give. I pray for a security that goes deeper than human ability.

Some part of me recognizes that operating from a paradigm of lack only reinforces it. After all, money is meant to circulate—that’s why it’s called currency. It’s meant to flow through me, into action, into the world. What happens if I build a dam of fear instead?

In these times, we are tested in our resolve and faith. The urge to clutch is the signal to let go. I remind myself that generosity is a description of generating, of creating. What can I create if I am tight-fisted? What garden can I grow, what poem can I write, whom can I befriend without a spirit of sharing? “Closed hands: closed minds,” observes my yoga teacher in India, Geeta Iyengar. Closed hearts, as well.

Sometimes I will not have the money to give. But what other resources do I have? An extra room to house someone? Extra clothes? Can I still give my time and energy? Perhaps these gestures mean even more than money. Can I act in a spirit of abundance and share my small loaf of bread and can of tuna?

Divine security manifests as a beloved community. If we recognize our interconnection, giving to another is equivalent to giving to ourselves. Generosity results from the assurance that I will be cared for just as I care for others. Perhaps most importantly, a practice of generosity teaches us how to be gracious recipients. May we all give and receive generously.

Friday, October 31, 2008


Yoga is a practice of identifying more with the eternal than the ephemeral.

We begin with the physical body, becoming more aware of the weight on our feet, the asymmetries between right and left sides, and the tightness in our shoulders. We refine ourselves, becoming stronger, more flexible, and more balanced.

We notice our minds, and the chatter it's so difficult to slow down. We start to observe our lapses into negativity and cynicism. We notice how often we become judgmental, and how hard it is to stay in the present moment, as we dig up old hurts or plan for a better future. We take note of our fears and anxieties and deep-rooted insecurities. As we observe ourselves with compassion and detachment, these tendencies loosen their hold on us.

As we work on ourselves, we recognize that who we think we are is ever-changing and, frankly, inconsequential. Angry one second, happy the next; confident one day, the next day crushed. What does it matter? As we practice yoga we identify more with the eternal, universal Self than the temporary, costumed self.

We become more interconnected with the Eternal in all sentient beings as well. We recognize the divine in all life forms, and realize that we are all One. If we are all One, then we are each other. We are manifestations of each other, co-creating the world in which we live.

When we encounter ugliness, hatred, racism, and violence in society, we need to recognize that the perpetrators are basically manifestations of the consciousness we are creating. We ARE the white supremacists fantasizing about assassination. We ARE the young people feeling so disenfranchised they don't bother to form an opinion and vote. We ARE the neglected elderly voting out of fear and lack of information. We have formed them out of our consciousness. We conveniently place them outside of ourselves so we can criticize them and feel smug.

Let me tell you a story. One day, when our kids were tiny, my husband Ed and I were bickering in the kitchen. It was not an extraordinary argument, just a run-of-the-mill disagreement that couples often have, especially under the stress of caring for little ones, etc. We were engrossed in heatedly trying to convince the other that we were right when I looked over at Meiko, who was 3. She reached over to 1 year-old Katja with her hands around her neck. Meiko wasn't actually choking Katja, but she was enacting what she was feeling and witnessing in the kitchen at that moment. Ed and I stopped in our tracks, immediately getting the message.

In the brilliance and spontaneity that children embody, Meiko showed us exactly how youth, being the most emotionally vulnerable in society, will manifest the tension and violence of their environments. Certain people are more sensitive and susceptible than others. We need to thank them, for being the canary in the coalmine, and have compassion for the important roles they are playing in society as our teachers, as we provide means to help them heal from the trauma they are working through.

When we encounter these situations, we must look at ourselves. We have to be brutally honest with ourselves, as yoga teaches us to be. What racial fear or hatred have I buried in myself? What pain am I harboring? What am I afraid of? The more we can work through our own trauma, the less our children and most emotionally vulnerable in our society will act out on our behalf. We must embrace and look at our own shadows, with compassion, nonjudgment, and objectivity.

To protect Barack Obama from harm, each of us must take on this inner work. We are simply microcosms of the macrocosm of society. To create a truly blessed community, we work through the community which is our own body, for the body is an ingenious processor of trauma. By transforming the trauma in our bodies into compassion and love, we will change society. Patanjali states in the yoga sutras that around one who is truly nonviolent, hostilities evaporate.

More love, more Adho Mukha Svanasana.


Did you hear this story on NPR?
The fact is that middle and upper class folks have always rewarded their children for doing well, with allowance, gifts, privileges, and more. And these kids have always understood that doing well in school = college = skills and opportunities = meaningful career. If you come from a family that does not embrace that value system because it was never accessible to them, should you be shortchanged? If you have an overworked, overwhelmed single mom who never had the chance to go to college and is in debt, who's going to reward you for that hard-earned A? Who's going to take you out to dinner? I say let's give the program a try. Give a sliver of that $12,000/kid that goes to school systems to the kid.

I teach in a women’s college with many nontraditional students who are working full-time, single parenting, and going to school. They should get paid for the huge sacrifice they are making! On the other hand, my 2 college student daughters can focus exclusively on school, because my husband and I are paying their tuitions. Essentially we “pay” them for concentrating on their studies.
On another level, paying kids for performance in school is a form of reparations. This NPR story is about a predominantly African American school. As a nation, we are in debt to populations who were historically and institutionally deprived of rights. We can't pay the victims, but what if we gave that money to their children? Too late to do this? Give it to the current generation.
This reminds me of the debate on the current government bail-out of Wall Street. What if instead of 700 billion to the banks, we gave that money to the people in foreclosure themselves? What if we gave it to those who have the least instead of those who have the most, as Howard Zinn suggests? (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20081027/zinn)
What if we paid the kids instead of throwing more money at the system? What if we paid the slaves instead of the foremen and plantation owners? Of course we need to support the public school administrators and teachers, and not just "bribe" kids. But why not do both? The "bribe" is basically a way of developing will and establishing new habits.
If parents are not teaching these skills for whatever reasons, the school needs to step in. Geoffrey Canada demonstrates at Harlem Children's Zone that if poor kids are given the same opportunities middle class kids have always had, they can succeed as well. Listen to the interview with him on This American Life at http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=364.
I am frankly tired of people of privilege denying poor people the rights the middle and upper classes have always had.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


I just want to correct my prior assumption that the city of Buffalo was a relic. I drove around yesterday and visited Hallwalls in their new building on Delaware Avenue, popped in at Righteous Babe records, and found an amazing used bookstore on Allen Street, off of Elmwood, called Rust Belt Books. I could've spent all day tromping up and down Elmwood Avenue. It's good to see the young people on their bikes, and lots of rehabbed turn-of-the-century houses, fliers for concerts and plays and poetry readings, and other signs of a vital community. It was like Williamsburg, except lots cheaper. Glad to see people are still moving into Buffalo!

Monday, May 12, 2008

I'm writing this from a motel room in Amherst, NY, where I've come for my dad's memorial lecture by some guy from Harvard (title: "A History of Vasopressin-Induced Water Flow in Transporting Epithelia"--I have to attend but I'm bringing a book). I just got back from a so-so Indian dinner by myself in a strip mall, and after that I went for a drive to see our old digs.

I feel very tenderly toward suburban Buffalo now, as conflicted as I was growing up here. Nine years after my dad's death, and seven years after my mom, practically every street holds memories. I feel like I'm surrounded by ghosts: images of my mom and dad and brother John (who died at 25), memories of growing up here, and even my kids as babies and little ones are here. I parked the car near Mom's house and walked around the neighborhood. Everyone had those awful yellow pesticide signs on their weed-free lawns. Like Milwaukee, everyone was out, eager to take advantage of the 60s temperature.

When I look at Mom's and Dad's old house on Deer Ridge, I remember all those summers we drove up. I remember my mom ingratiating herself to her neighbor with the swimming pool so that our kids could swim over there. I remember my dad in his dementia letting himself into the house next door and sitting down to watch the Buffalo Bills. I actually walked up to my parents' house and rang the bell. The house was dark and I suspected no one was home, which was why I had the courage to go up and ring. From inside a dog barked, but no one answered. Knowing no one was home, I felt a little freer to walk around the house, peek into the back yard, etc. So many stories and memories flooded back. One year we had a clown birthday party for Meiko in the back yard. My mom met her at some church meeting or something, an older white lady, who it turned out did clowning on the side.

I drove up to the middle school and high school, then to the house on Robinhill where we grew up. I tried to find my best friends' houses but I could not recognize them. All the old people have moved out, and it's a whole new slew of young families in these houses. The houses have been re-sided and remodeled beyond recognition.

I sort of understand why people stay in Shorewood for so long and even come back. Especially when your loved ones pass away, geography takes on a resonance that is almost unbearably tender. Who would think those subdivisions could elicit real emotion even in me?

Also, at our last two salons, we've been discussing race, and I'm having all these flashbacks about my racial coming-of-age, so to speak, when we moved to Buffalo and became minorities for the first time. There's Jane L's house, the only other Asian girl at Heim Middle, whose mother, it was rumored, was a Jehovah's witness and crazy. There's Linda W's house, where I went for the birthday party and gave her a green rubber statue of a Chinaman with the caption, "I rov you rots and rots." Which reminds me of the joke Jie-L told in yoga class with the cross-country team: How do Chinese people name their kids? They throw silverware at a wall and name their kid after whatever sound it makes. How easily we take on the attitudes of the dominant culture, or is it a pretense in order to protect ourselves?

What's weird about Buffalo is that now it seems that the suburbs have become Buffalo, and the city itself is a relic. Amherst, Williamsville, Getzville, and Tonawanda ARE Buffalo now. Everyone lives out here. Which is a shame because it's a completely car-dependent culture, and the landscape chemically-dependent. There are tons of malls with gigantic, sprawling, largely empty parking lots. On the positive side, it's become quite racially diverse. Far more people of color everywhere than I remember growing up.

I went to the cemetery today where we have 4 family graves: my brother John, mom and dad, and Caleb, who was my brother's stillborn son. It was maybe the first time I've visited the graves alone, and it took me a little while to find them. There was only 1 other person at the cemetery and I was trying to give her space, but it turned out that she was visiting and tending the grave immediately adjacent our family plot. It seemed a bit intrusive and oddly coincidental to be right next to her as she was weeding and trimming the hedges, so I took a little walk around the cemetery (which also had just been sprayed). I saw and heard robins and red-winged blackbirds, and many other birds I don't know yet. The trees have tiny little leaves--picture little 2-inch oak leaves, so it was relatively easy to spot the birds. After the other visitor left, I sat on John's stone, sang songs, and left stones on each grave, a Jewish tradition, I'm told. It was wonderful to just hang out at the cemetery. Whenever I'm there with others we only stay a few minutes. This time I was able to just be there, feel, remember, and pray.

Tomorrow I see my uncle Waun-ki and brother Robert and go to the university for the festivities.

Basking in the shadows of our former selves,

Thursday, May 8, 2008


COME AND SEE OUR PLAY!!!! RECEPTION OPENING NIGHT AT THE THEATRE! You all know Deb and I have been toiling away on this project for 3 years. It's finally going to be up. Come and see what we've been developing. I hope you will find it edifying, moving, and inspiring. Tell friends! We also invite community groups to table in the lobby, and groups of 10 or more get a 20% discount. Contact Jackie for details. much love and thanks for your continued support--peggy

May 7, 2008

Contact Jacqueline Lalley

Women's Voices Bring Iraq War Home in "Small Pieces Fly to Heaven"

MILWAUKEE, WI--In "Small Pieces Fly to Heaven," running June 5-8 at Off-Broadway Theatre, 342 N. Water Street, an ensemble led by Peggy Hong and Deborah Clifton shares the anguish, beauty, humor, and common ground of women in the face of the current Iraq war.

Based on Iraqi women's blogs, memoirs by US military women, and interviews with American civilian women, "Small Pieces Fly to Heaven" uses poetry, movement, and performance to explore the Iraq war from the "back lines," where women keep life going. What is the effect of war, on the ground, for ordinary citizens, whether Iraqi or American? How are women in America impacted, far from the battlegrounds of Iraq? Do Americans even remember that we are at war? In a drawn-out war with no end in sight, how do Americans and Iraqis move forward? "Small Pieces Fly to Heaven" makes a distant war personal and immediate.

"Small Pieces Fly to Heaven" is an ensemble project led by Deborah Clifton of Theatre X and Peggy Hong, Milwaukee Poet Laureate 2006-2007. The ensemble developed material through an ongoing salon of local women artists meeting for over a year. Contributors and performers include Alexa Bradley, Grace DeWolf, Yvette Mitchell, Rachel Raven Lily Sophia, Mary Lou Lamonda, Dena Aronson, Libby Amato, Maggie Arndt, Megan Kaminski, and Erin DeYoung. Sets by visual artist Fahimeh Vahdat draw attention to social and spiritual issues and draw on her personal experience as an Iranian refugee. Clifton directs the production.

"War dehumanizes us, but this play brings us into intimate contact with full human beings: women living through the war, both civilian and military," says Hong. "Through their stories, we find beauty, humor, anguish and common ground. As we realize our interconnection, we can hopefully move forward."

"Small Pieces Fly to Heaven" plays June 5-8, Thursday and Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, at Off-Broadway Theatre, 342 N. Water St. Tickets are $20 or $16 for students and groups of 10 or more. To purchase, call 414-278-0765. Previews are June 2-4 at 7:30 pm and are open to the public.


Interviews and photos are available; call 847-345-4823 or email: smallpieces@invitingpositivechange.com.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


I cried yesterday, as I heard Obama denounce his pastor. His story seems to be unfolding like an epic Greek drama.

For this man who was abandoned by his Kenyan father to be forced to throw his spiritual father under the bus (as they most unpleasantly say) broke my heart. And for Wright, who loves Obama, to be pushed under, hurts as well.

Even more so, Obama’s press conference on Tuesday, April 29, sounded to me like a rejection of the progressive social justice platform altogether. Frankly, I felt personally rejected, as a woman of color with radical leanings, tossed under the bus along with Wright. Bounce, thud.

What does it take for a black man to be elected president of the US? What must he compromise? Is it worth the price? How can he assuage the mainstream while sincerely working for change? Can he have it both ways?

Now I am under no illusion that Barack Obama is a progressive. His voting record in the Senate is to the right of Hillary Clinton’s. Still, I voted for him because he represents the strongest potential for changing politics-as-usual.

The fact is, Jeremiah Wright, Jr. speaks my mind more closely than Obama does. I will do my own research on HIV on African Americans, but aside from this comment, I agree 100% with everything I’ve heard over the past years, months, and days.

None of our major 3 candidates addresses the elephant in the living room: the American empire. None address the problem of the corporate-run media, not to mention the corporate-run war and the corporate-run US Congress. None challenge the basic power structure of this nation.

We need both the Jeremiahs and the Obamas. We need to acknowledge the dark: the reality of racism, sexism, and oppression still alive in America. And we need to embrace the light: to believe in change, to have something to hope for, and to work tirelessly toward our brightest potential.

John Nichols wrote the most refreshing commentary on the topic at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/thebeat/316575 . He blames the mainstream media for creating this debacle and for victimizing Wright. But I would go a step further. The MSM is only one result of our nation concentrating wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands.

We are in the waning days of capitalism. The great experiment found fruitful ground in the USA, and we’ve carried it to an unprecedented extreme, making profit from everything from education to water to airwaves to health care, and most painfully, war.

So where do we go from here? I’m a yoga practitioner—I have to practice optimism!

Howard Zinn reminds us that electoral politics is only a fraction of our responsibility as citizens at http://www.progressive.org/mag_zinn0308. Jesse Jackson reminds us that real change comes from a combination of litigation, legislation, and demonstration. [http://www.wpr.org/book/080427a.html] He retells a story of Harry Belafonte’s, about civil rights leaders in the 1940s meeting with President Roosevelt, laying out their agenda for equality. FDR told them that he basically agreed with everything they said, and instructed them, “now go out and make me do it.” Real change has to come from the people. We fortify and center ourselves through yoga practice so that we can creatively and effectively speak truth to power.

We can’t wait around for Obama or any other candidate to catch up with us. We can’t ask a retired pastor to be our bull-horn. We have to agitate, motivate, push and pull, and stand up for justice. Individually we can turn off our TVs, dig in our gardens, ride our bikes, reduce consumption, and increase community. I’m with Wright: whomever is elected, on November 5th, we have to be right there, demanding justice.

Now let me get out from under this bus….enough already.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Asana sequence, week 9, level 2-3

pys II.6
paryankasana, 2 blocks
supta virasana/rope 1-2
standing backbend, head to wall
standing bhujangasana to wall
viparita dandasana, chair
urdhva dhanurasana, seated on chair, hands to wall
urdhva dhanurasana, chair
dwipada viparita dandasana, chair, belt
urdhva dhanurasana/dwipada viparita dandasana
uttanasana, parsva
sarvangasana, ardha halasana

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Asana sequence, week 8, level 2-3

virasana, PYS II.4
supta padangusthasana, parivrtta
adho mukha vrksasana
ekahasta bhujasana
akarna dhanurasana
salamba sarvangasana, halasana, ekapada, supta konasana

Saturday, March 22, 2008

UU Podcast and Jeremiah Wright

Apparently the First Unitarian Church records all their sermons. My talk last week can be heard at http://www.uumilwaukee.org/postings/category/guest-speakers

By the way, since Jeremiah Wright is so much in the press these days and has caused such intense controversy, the least people of open minds can do is give this man a chance to be heard. After all he has been awarded numerous honorary doctorates and many other mainstream accolades , which is to say, he's no David Duke (a comparison I have heard). I heard him speak at New York's Riverside Church and he is brilliant and compassionate. Here is a link to his 9/11 sermon in its entirety. I found it powerful and truthful and listened to it twice.

Asana sequence, week 7, level 2-3

adho mukha virasana/adho mukha svanasana/uttanasana
adho mukha vrksasana
sirsasana, ekapada
ams to parsvottanasana
ams to parivrtta trikonasana
prasarita padottanasana
wall utthita parsva hasta padangusthasana
parivrtta upavishta konasana
parivrtta janu sirsasana
janu sirsasana
salamba sarvangasana, ekapada, halasana, supta konasana, urdhva mukha paschimottanasana

Asana sequence, Level 1, Week 6

adho mukha virasana/adho mukha svanasana
ardha uttanasana, wall to virabhadrasana iii
supta padangusthasana i
vinyasa: tadasana, urdhva hastasana, virabhadrasana iii to chair, urdhva prasarita ekapadasana
adho mukha svanasana
upavishtha konasana
parsva uvk
janu sirsasana
salamba sarvangasana, ekapada, parsvaikapada, halasana, supta konasana

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Some of you suggested I post the sermon I gave at First Unitarian Church on 16 March. Here it is:

When I was invited to serve as Milwaukee poet laureate by the public library two years ago, I had some misgivings. I sort of tried to talk my way out of it. You see, after 9/11, the deaths of my parents, and the intensity of graduate school, I’d made a conscious decision to put poetry on the back burner. I felt, frankly, that there were more important tasks at hand. The nation and the planet were in crisis and all hands were needed to elect a progressive president, fix the voting machines, counter fundamentalism, prevent war, and so much more. I didn’t want to isolate myself at my desk for 3 hours, slaving away at a poem, which IF I managed to get it published, might be read by 200 people, then forgotten. I wanted to be out on the street, with my people, making change from the ground up.

Of course we can argue that the making of art in and of itself is a radical act. But I wanted to be radical like Gandhi, like Emma Goldman, like Angela Davis. I wanted to participate in civil disobedience and get arrested with Code Pink. Not just write about it.

So what actually IS the relationship between the arts and social change? Can a song or a poem or a dance change society, change the world?

I believe the bridge between art and social change is personal practice. With those activities we engage in daily to challenge ourselves and to grow. Your personal practice might be a daily, mindful walk through your neighborhood or a park. It might be “morning pages,” writing in a journal upon waking. It might be meditation or prayer. It might be playing a musical instrument or singing. It might take 10 minutes or 2 hours. It almost doesn’t matter what the practice is, only that we do it consciously and commit ourselves to it. A personal practice takes us from the known to the unknown, the finite to the infinite, the secular to the sacred, the individual to the universal.

I love the notion of practice. Not accomplishment. Not performance, not publication, but just practice. One of my mentors, senior Iyengar yoga teacher Chris Saudek, tells us that in yoga class, there are 2 things one never needs to say. One is “thank you,” and the other is “I’m sorry.” You see, we’re just practicing. Of course all our attempts will be imperfect. There’s no place for pride nor shame. We’re just practicing, putting forth our best effort moment by moment, trying to stay alert and responsive.

Novelist Eudora Welty described how she approached her writing each day with neither hope nor dread. When we come to our practice freed from expectations and judgment, we enter the open realm of possibility. Here, then, is the fertile, generative place of personal transformation. Persian poet Rumi says,

"Out beyond wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about."

The field: that is our place of practice.

But how can my little practice: a few minutes of meditation, some breathing, doing a series of yoga postures, create social change?

Let me tell you a story. One of my favorite public radio programs, Radiolab, produced at WNYC, did a show on music. They told a story that may be familiar to you about Igor Stravinsky. When “The Rite of Spring” premiered in 1913 in Paris, the dissonance and polyrhythms, and the very modern choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky suggesting fertility rites literally drove the audience crazy. They actually had shouting matches and fistfights in the aisles and the performance degenerated into a riot. I’d heard this story many times as an example of how powerful and iconoclastic art can be.

What I hadn’t known was the follow-up to the story, which was that “The Rite of Spring” was performed one year later, again in Paris, and this time it was met with adulation, and Stravinsky was carried off on the shoulders of his adoring audience. What happened in a single year?

According to the neuroscientists interviewed on Radiolab, the auditory cortex, within that tumultuous year, had acclimated to dissonance. You see, when we experience something completely new and unexpected, the brain, which is essentially a conservative organ, doesn’t know how to process it, how to contextualize it. The brain “abhors the new,” as one scientist put it. When the neurons of the auditory cortex are overwhelmed, they start releasing dopamine. Dopamine in small quantities makes us happy. But too much dopamine will lead to schizophrenia. In that theater in Paris in 1913, the audience members had become biochemically insane. But within a year, the brain had learned this pattern, had begun to make sense of dissonance and asymmetric rhythms, had begun to appreciate and even enjoy it.

So from the perspective of the brain, the role of the artist is to disrupt the known, subvert the status quo, and stimulate us into new patterns of perception and understanding. We need art to jolt us, to startle us out of complacency, even to shock us. Art is far more than a place to rest the eyes or lull the ear. If we want our brains to continue developing, we need to expose ourselves to art that confuses us, that we may not find pleasant at first. Beauty is non-essentialist. That is to say, beauty cannot be taken out of context; beauty creates its own context. What is chaos and noise in 1913 is groundbreaking, beautiful music in 1914. By 1940, it’s children’s music, used in Disney’s Fantasia.

“That music is just noise.” “I could make a painting like that.” “Those dancers, they were just jumping around up there, I don’t know what they were doing.” Or in a yoga class, “That pose hurts. I don’t know what the purpose of that is,” or “Lift the kneecaps? What does that even mean, I don’t get it at all.” My friend and eurythmy teacher Mary Ruud advises us to savor those moments of feeling lost and confused. But if we stick with the new experience, the brain gets to work.

The brain starts to sort and analyze and understand the new pattern. Soon the brain leads us to experience the new art differently: “Hmmm, I kind of like how MIA layers different kinds of found sound and sings over that.” “When I sit in front of this Rothko painting, I can really experience the color and notice all its gradations.” Or in a yoga pose, “When I really turned my right thigh out and pressed my foot down I was able to balance and create quietness in my breath and in my mind.”

Isn’t this what it really means to be “open-minded”? On a neurological level, when we are engaged in our personal practice, when we challenge our brains with new experiences, when we expose ourselves to even disruptive or painful experiences like attending Stravinsky’s premier of “The Rite of Spring,” we educate our neurons and create new patterns and thus new understandings. As we literally and biochemically open our minds, don’t we open our hearts as well? We become more attentive and more aware and thus more sensitive to each other. A society comprised of such individuals would surely not leave anyone out in the cold, without adequate food or housing or healthcare. A society comprised of such individuals would not leave the important task of governing to corporations and the wealthy.

If you want a population you can manipulate, withdraw support for artists. Demolish social programs, don’t pay a living wage, deprive people of basic needs like healthcare. Eliminate all safety nets. Make people work overtime, 2 or more jobs, limit their free time. Without free time, we’re deprived of our practices. We don’t take walks, we don’t make music, we don’t do yoga, we don’t write poems, we don’t go to church.

When we are stressed-out, our practices dry up. In that state we seek the familiar and comfortable. We want predictable experiences because we’re already juggling so much. But this is when we need our personal practices the most, and when society needs art the most.

So let us make time everyday to engage in a meaningful personal practice. May we approach our lives as artists, ever growing and evolving. May our work as artists expand outward to build a healthier more compassionate society. May it be so.

Asana sequence, week 6, level 2-3

adho mukha virasana/adho mukha svanasana/uttanasana
adho mukha svanasana to parsvottanasana, parivrtta trikonasana
prasarita padottanasana
sirsasana, ekapada
upavista konasana
parsva uvk
parivrtta uvk
baddha konasana
parivrtta janu sirsasana
janu sirsasana
setubandha, block
sarvangasana, ekapada, halasana, supta konasana, urdhva mukha paschimottanasana

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Asana sequence, Monday, Level 2-3, 10 March

Patanjali yoga sutra II.2
adho mukha virasana/adho mukha svanasana/uttanasana
adho mukha vrksasana
supta padangusthasana i, parivrtta
adho mukha svanasana, heels wall, ekapada
virabhadrasana iii to urdhva prasarita ekapadasana, fingers to wall
utthita hasta padangusthasana, foot to wall
uhp, high rope
uhp, side to wall, holding foot
sarvangasana, ekapada, halasana

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Asana sequence, Saturday, 8 March Level 1, Week 4

adho mukha virasana
adho mukha svanasana, hands to wall
ams, hands on blocks, wall
urdhva mukha svanasana, as above
rope 1
rope standing backbend
standing backbend, head to wall
urdhva mukha svanasana
adho mukha virasana, parsva
ardha matsyendrasana
salamba sarvangasana, halasana

Wednesday's asana sequence

7pm Level 1, 5 March, Week 4

adho mukha virasana/adho mukha svanasana/uttanasana
urdhva hastasana
ardha chandrasana
adho mukha svanasana/urdhva mukha svanasana
ustrasana, ropes
adho mukha virasana, parsva
sarvangasana, halasana

Asana sequences, Friday, 7 March

9am Level 1, Week 5

adho mukha virasana
adho mukha svanasana
adho mukha svanasana/uttanasana low rope
trikonasana, wall, chair
parsvakonasana, wall chair
uttanasana, hips to wall
prasarita padottanasana, chair
supta baddha konasana
chair sarvangasana/setubandha bench menstr
viparita karani

Same for 11am Gentle Level 1, Week 5, except standing poses were with ropes.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Dhyana and spring

Most mornings, when I don't feel the pressure of the day bearing down on me, I sit down for a 23 minute meditation as soon as I arise. Chilly in the house, I keep my bathrobe on and slip into the warmest corner of the house and kneel on my balance cushion. I set the timer. Why 23 minutes? My watch has the annoying habit of beeping at the 3-minutes-remaining mark, and every 30 seconds thereafter. I figure 20 minutes of stillness is about what I can currently handle, and I use the remaining 3 minutes as transition time.

The past couple of weeks have brought some changes to my developing dhyana practice. It's always been cold and dark and silent as I sit, but now the sun is making its way through the clouds earlier, around 6:30am or so, instead of after 7am when I'm making my breakfast. Even more notable, our neighborhood cardinal is back, and I can hear his (I think the males sing this song) chirping accompanying my quiet breathing. Birds and sunlight, yes, spring is indeed coming, what a relief!

As my watch counts down its last 3 minutes, I switch from watching my breath or using a mantra to a more active "social" practice of meditation. I began this in India, sending pure unadulterated love and benevolence to my teacher, Geeta Iyengar. Since then I've added my family members to my "list" and I send them love, unconditional, infinite, benevolent. Malachi and Ed, still asleep. Katja in New York City in her triple dorm room on 5th Avenue. Meiko all the way in Bamako, Mali. It's a form of prayer, of holding someone in the light, as the Quakers say. I tack on others whom I know are needing support. By now my feet are starting to fall asleep and I know my sitting time is just about up. So is the sun now, and the cardinal has already moved on.

Asana sequence, Monday, Level 2-3, 3 March

adho mukha svanasana, head support
rope sirsasana/supta virasana (small groups)
chair sarvangasana
viparita karani/viparita dandasana/bench setubandha (small groups)
savasana, bolster, ujjayi, viloma inhales
seated ujjayi with shoulder harness
seated ujjayi, digital closing inhales and exhales

Friday, February 29, 2008

Asana sequences, Friday, 29 Feb 9am and 11am

9am Level 1
swastikasana, twist
adho mukha svanasana
ams, plank, partner
tadasana, gomukhasana
surya namaskar w/trikonasana, parsvakonasana, virabhadrasana I
virabhadrasana I, wall
urdhva mukha svanasana, chair
adho mukha virasana, parsva
sarvangasana, ardha halasana

11am Gentle level 1
adho mukha svanasana, rope
trikonasana, rope
parsvakonasana, rope
ardha chandrasana, rope
rope gomukhasana
rope 1, pubis to chair
rope urdhva hastasana
standing backbend, ropes
urdhva mukha svanasana, chair
chair viparita dandasana (alternate chair purvottanasana)
chair sarvangasana

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Asana sequence, Thursday, 9am, Level 3, 28 Feb

Oops, I spied an error on the Monday night sequence in which Supta Virasana came AFTER Pincha, and was followed by Paryankasana. We did a similar sequence on Th, adding:

Standing backbend, head/hands to wall
Kapotasana after Ustrasana, hands to wall
Urdhva Dhanurasana dropping back hands to wall
Ardha Matsyendrasana after Uttanasana

Asana sequence, Wednesday, 27 Feb, Level 1, 7pm

Adho Mukha Virasana/Adho Mukha Svanasana
Ardha Chandrasana
Adho Mukha Svanasana, plank
Vasisthasana I
Urdhva Prasarita Padasana, 90-60-30 degrees
Paripurna Navasana
Ardha Navasana
Jathara Parivartanasana, legs bent
Chatush Padasana
Salamba Sarvangasana, Halasana

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Asana sequences

As a learning tool for my yoga students, I will post the week's sequences on my blog. This is what we did on Monday, February 25, 2008.

Level 2-3, Week 4
Virasana, Patanjali yoga sutra II.45
Adho Mukha Virasana/Adho Mukha Svanasana
Adho Mukha Svanasana/hands up wall
AMS, elbows to floor
Sirsasana, belt around sacrum (rest of class)
Adho Mukha Vrksasana
Supta Virasana
Pincha Mayurasana
Ustrasana, holding ropes
Ustrasana, forehead to wall
Adho Mukha Virasana, Parsva
Uttanasana, Parsva
Sarvangasana, Ardha Halasana

Friday, February 22, 2008

Coming Home

It’s been rough to return to Wisconsin winter after 6 weeks in India, traveling with my family for 2 weeks and studying in Pune at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute for 4 weeks. Not only have I left the wonderful teachings of the Iyengar family behind, but also the glorious tropical fruit (papayas, pineapples, figs, the peach/apple-like chikku), the lack of responsibility, the collegiality , and the warm sunshine.

On the other hand, tap water I can drink is nice, hot water at the turn of any spigot, plumbing pipes wide enough for toilet paper, no garbage incineration on the streets, the absence of jostling and crowds, and the company of my sweet son and husband. I’ll be back in India soon enough.

The main thing I’ve brought back with me from India is good health. In fact, I feel healthier than I have in 15 years. Even though Pune is ranked 5th in the world in terms of air pollution, my sinus and breathing issues completely cleared up. My digestion improved and I was able to eat just about anything. My eczema completely disappeared. And these symptoms have stayed away. It’s a miracle!

What happened? I can think of several factors:

1. 5 hours of yoga each day: we had a daily 2-hour class, and a 3-hour practice period. I had nothing else I was responsible for to stop me from devoting myself to as much practice as possible. Most mornings I spent in meditation followed by pranayama. Then breakfast and morning practice, and class in the evening. Believe me, these were full, rigorous, well-rounded classes taught by the brilliant Geetaji and Prashantji.

2. I found a wonderful homeopath, Dr. (Mrs.) Nileema Dhoble, whose office was just up the street from me. I chose her blindly out of convenience, and it turned out she’s an excellent diagnostician and prescriber. 2 days after I began the constitutional treatment I fell quite ill with a bad cough. The cough cleared up in a few days and took away with it all my other symptoms. Before I left Pune, I saw her again, and she gave me enough remedies to last me until my friend Debra Johnson returns to India in July 2009, when she can refresh my supply, if I still need it.

3. No stress. No classes to teach, no family nor household to tend to, no meals to cook for anyone except for myself. No driving, no telephone, no television, no computer.

4. Saladmaster. OK, I spent a fortune on cookware back in December. My anxiety about this indulgence vanished however, when I received the pots and pans and started using them. I promise I won’t go on and on about them. Suffice to say for now, that for the first time in my life, I am aluminum and Teflon-free, because the pots are lined with 316L surgical steel, the most non-porous, non-reactive metal available. My health up-turn began around the time I started using Saladmaster. (And I brought the pots to India!) Coincidence? I’m starting to wonder.

I came home to a crashed, demolished, totally crumbled hard drive. On one hand, what could be worse for a writer than to lose 5 years of material?

On the other hand, what could be better? All those unfinished drafts, all that accumulated sludge.

Yours, starting fresh in Wisconsin,