Alison Luterman

Sometimes in yoga class, I invite students to dedicate their practice, that is the energy generated during movement, as well as any good will engendered, to someone else, to make a connection that extends beyond the mat. Poems can do this, too. Writing about another as a connection, an honoring, an acknowledgement that we’re situated in this time and place and part of something extending–before or after, to the right or to the left, above and below.

I read this poem in Nimrod last fall and then read it again and again. I’m pleased Alison has allowed me to share it here. Enjoy.

 

She for whom I am named

 

left Russia at fifteen to follow her betrothed.

Good-bye, skinny chickens and fly-bitten cows,

synagogue leaning on one side, as if to dodge blows

from a Cossack’s boot.

Hello, crowded, terrifying boat,

creaking horribly as it rides the vagrant waves.

Let’s draw a veil over her journey in steerage,

thick and homespun like the curtains

they put up to separate men from unmarried girls.

We’ll catch up with her on arrival:

bewildered, hungry, homesick, excited, ashamed,

scanning the crowd for a face she won’t recognize.

He’s found a job, he drives trucks

for the sanitation department,

hoisting heavy buckets of stink on his shoulders

for the next forty years, for the rest of his life.

She hugs her shawl around herself,

trips on strange concrete in her heavy shoes,

and speaks only Yiddish. So they begin their marriage.

She was young. She must have had hopes.

Let’s not dwell on their wedding night

or the nights afterward when she wept

uselessly, until, as good girls were taught,

she settled into her fate.

Sat all her life behind that same curtain

separating women from the important

black hats who crowded close

by the rabbi’s golden fountaining,

for the least drops of holy wisdom.

Kept to her home in Brooklyn,

and later in life, after He died,

kept her pockets full of candy for the children.

Sweet, she was, my father says,

and in the only photo I have of her, stout,

pleasant-looking, plain,

in her wire-rimmed glasses and flowered dress.

She’s holding a small book–a Bible?

in her hand, though she couldn’t read,

she’d never been to school.

It must have been a prop,

a pretense, its own kind of prayer.

She wanted to be remembered

studying The Word, which in men’s mouths,

dark and terrible, could make or unmake the world.

In me now combine uneasily

her meekness and silence, his rage

as I scrawl and type, click and tap

through thickets of English

as she never could, making my way,

bushwhacking, sometimes flying

in this story-telling business of lies.

This is not how she would have recounted

her life, were she given leave,

had she even thought

such a thing possible. Singing

the thready off-key melody

of Shava (which means, in Hebrew,

“Cry for Help”), Gittel, (“Good”)–

who loved a glass of sweet wine and a fierce game of cards,

who, God rest her, my uncle says,

never said an evil word,

and as for her maiden name, which no one remembers anymore,

let’s put an X.

 

Alison Luterman

 

Note: Poem previously published in Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry; poem posted with  permission of  the poet

 

Writing as shriving

If you write, what do you make of family history? Anything at all?

Growing up, I spent summers at my grandmother’s little pink house in Henderson, Nevada. The wide streets deeply sloped to manage the rushing water of flash floods. The low stucco building were a world apart from the rest of my life in a century-old townhouse on Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill.

Helen was the eldest in a family of four. Her father died when she was eight and she identified strongly with her mother’s family, especially her grandfather who had emigrated to Utah from Scotland in the late 19th-century.  A blacksmith by trade, John Urie was a curious traveler who kept journals and wrote long letters; he treasured books. Along with a Paisley shawl Urie had given his wife Priscilla, Helen inherited a trunk full of papers.

The summer I was 22, Helen sat me on her narrow sofa with a sharpened pencil and a green-covered notebook and piled Urie’s records in front of me. My grandmother knew I wanted to be a writer. She encouraged me by sending blank books and maintaining a steady correspondence, long letters of her own written on blue stationary documenting Nevada history, the roses, the cats and her memories.

“I want you to do something with this,” she said about Urie’s papers, and left me alone to go into the kitchen and process plums into jam.

John Urie.

Urie’s accounts of stowing away on a ship bound for New Orleans and walking to California, then riding a horse to Utah, captured my imagination. His attention to detail and his humor appealed to me. I copied passages, made notes. During subsequent years, I tapped these notes to write stories and poems. The material had been entrusted to me and I wanted to write something from it that mattered. But it never came out satisfactorily. The green-covered notebook I moved among dozens of residences became burdensome, especially after my grandmother died. I worried that if I didn’t do something with this stuff, it’d be lost forever.

One day a few years ago, as I was walking to meet a friend for lunch, Urie’s voice spoke a poem in my mind. I’d been working on fiction and was used to waking up in the night with a character demanding to have dialogue transcribed, or slipping over a cup of tea into a dream-like state where a scene unfolded in imagination. Sitting on a low wall, I jotted down Urie’s words. After lunch, I ordered up from the library dozens of books about blacksmithing, horse-back riding, crossing the Atlantic by ship, the rapid influx of religious immigrants to the West from Britain and Scandinavia in the 19th-century. I immersed myself in research, visiting Urie’s grave in Cedar City, shadowing a blacksmith at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park, and reading. Reading and writing for about a year while getting on with regular life as well.

A few poems have been published. Swimming a Horse in Verbatim. And, last week, Sea Change in Axe Factory. These modest poems are small pieces of the puzzle, though. The others tell of darker times, death and betrayal, loneliness and the limits of faith. I’m not sure there’s a public forum for those poems.

But I’m done. My responsibility fulfilled. In Not Writing History, the story is written. Sometimes the past knocks against the rusted cage of time. A writer’s job is to tell enough–to herself, a listener or for publication–to oil the hinges and unlatch that epoch, releasing what may have happened so that what can happen will occur.  That’s all.

Was it time well spent? I’d no choice. Urie’s voice burned like a fever. I felt Helen looking over my shoulder. With every line, I unburdened myself, and unburdened, I hope, others affected by his story. This is writing as shriving, serving through keyboard and pen the penance of a predecessor.

 

Ahimsa

In a recent review of a book on genocide, Stephen Budiansky writes that genocidal murder is an act of extreme social and psychological compartmentalization. The killers perceive their actions as outside of their “normal” lives and are able to return to their regular affairs without remorse. They treat murder as a job that occurs during a set time in a separate space with little to do with their everyday home and family lives.

Compartmentalization desensitizes a person to the whole. Genocide is extreme atrocity. Less extreme, also damaging, are the minor abuses that occur through daily fragmentation, the ones that erode our shared landscape. For example, whenever we think of “home” as bound by property lines, we exclude what’s beyond that perimeter. Every time we think, “That’s not my job,” we narrow ourselves to rigid and artificial functions. Watch a driver speeding through an unfamiliar neighborhood: the street’s viewed not as someone’s address but a thoroughfare. Think of the act of littering, discarding what’s unwanted, marring another’s space, leaving clean up for someone else.

Compartmentalization is fragmentation. And a fragmented world is in shards. One thing yoga does is provide a path to potential wholeness.

Willful destruction and mess-making? Okay for the kiddies. On grown-ups, not so cute.

(But realize that, just like following the many steps to bake a scratch coconut cake, you don’t know how the investment turns out until the timer rings.)

Whole. Cake. Good.

Ahimsa is the first step toward wholeness. One of five practices to guide ethical action in a person’s life, ahimsa is a rational choice in favor of non-violence, non-injury, kindness; it’s taking the course of least harm. Ahimsa is cultivating love and compassion. It’s friendliness, caring, affection, understanding. It’s large-, not small-heartedness.

Every choice involves a loss. In ahimsa the loss is of the negative, the no. Not destruction, but construction. Not desecration, but consecration. It’s not hurting, maybe helping.

Not a great place to spend all your time.

Ahimsa, the heart of yoga, is about de-compartmentalizing, leaving pigeon-holes, not characterizing, stereotyping, branding. Asana–the poses–support the practice of yoga, movement with breath, I with Thou, this with that, internalizing the truth that my world is your world.

A challenge for Americans, who have the luxury of cherry picking from the art and science and philosophy of yoga’s tree, is to employ enough self-control that their physical practice on the mat is not an end in-and-of-itself and instead a rehearsal for ethical practice in the world. Outside of athletics, “fitness” implies eligibility, competence, readiness.

Yoga, without ever getting out of a chair, can make one fit for the label “human being,” a label that comes with a whole lot of responsibility to others: a broad awareness, an encompassing sympathy. Ahimsa.

Fingertip meditation

Fingertip meditation

Small things matter. It’s as if the big occurrences are the arteries of the world and the small incidences are the veins.

A student told me that she prepares for sleep every night with a simple meditation I taught her. She said relaxing and unwinding are difficult for her and a few minutes of reflection and stillness help.

Try it.

Get comfortable in a seat. You might be sitting up in bed, on a chair or on the floor. Do sit up, though. Use pillows and blankets to support the torso so that the spine feels extended between the space above the crown of the head and the sitting bones. Imagine the vertebrae lined up on top of each other. Close your eyes or cast the gaze gently down. Sit with the breath for a few cycles of inhalation and exhalation. Try to follow the breath without adjusting it. That means keep your attention on the breath as it moves through the body. Note how three dimensional the torso is, that an inhalation expands the whole basket of the ribs.

Rest your hands palm up on your thighs, lap or a pillow on the lap. With the tip of the thumb, touch the tip of each finger, moving from pinky finger to index. Gentle touch.

Now add the breath. Inhale. Then, move through the fingers with the exhalation.

Now add the words: peace. begins. with. me. as you move through pinky, ring, middle, forefinger. Whisper, speak or say the words silently.

Move through the meditation for 5 – 7 rounds of breath. Pause with the hands stilled. Sigh. Maybe offer a well wish to someone or someplace that needs peace. Breathe and release that wish. You’re done for the day.

Feel free to change the words of the meditation to suit you.

Two suggestions:

I am breath-ing.

Breath brings me peace.

You can also use both hands to extend the meditation. For example:

Breath-ing in light. with the right hand.

Breath-ing out love. with the left.

Be creative. Be well.

Sweet dreams.

 

One Night

We Didn’t Mean to Go to the Sea?

I couldn’t resist the title when I saw it and purchased the book from a local used bookstore.

One night, years ago, I stayed up late curled on the couch to finish the story. The rest of the house was asleep. The neighborhood still. Then this poem arrived in the story’s wake and I jotted it down.

One Night

One night, she turns the novel’s last page. This is all—
small house, plain street, some trees, sweet and irksome neighbors, dishes, bills, water leaks,

fallen branches, people, dogs, cats adrift in dreams.
The novel is for youth, the story of a sea journey after loss, cross words and danger

and, in the end healed bones and hearts choosing this, over adventure, effervescent longing.
The story plucked like a string—
the world a whorl, made plain by the stain of surrender.

 

I played with the shape and lines but the words are as they arrived. I submitted the poem a few months after finishing it. “One Night” was rejected 15 times by journals large and small before VQR  accepted it in February 2014. My thanks to editor Ralph Eubanks who includes the small poem among work by writers much more accomplished than I in the winter 2015 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review. And my thanks to the sturdy poem for somehow surfacing in the flood of a large journal’s waves of cold submissions.

Shoulders x 3

Shoulders x 3

What does it feel like to have the shoulder blades slide down the back, inviting more space across the upper back and collar bones? Curious? Try this. Right now.

1. Take a seat on a chair or the floor, or stand. Identify the support of the ground through the soles of the feet or the sitting bones.

2. Raise the arms overhead in a wide “V,” palms of the hands facing the midline of the body. Root through the sitting bones or feet as the fingertips reach high. Reach-reach-reach. Inhale. Exhale and let the shoulder blades slide and glide down the back. The sensation might be of the shoulder blades heading straight down or maybe even moving down to the outer edges of the back like an orchestra conductor’s hands marking the phrasing of music. Take a cycle or two of breath (inhale-exhale). Notice where the breath feels spacious or constricted. How can you invite breath throughout the body?

3. Move the arms in a bit until they are directly overhead. Root and reach-reach-reach. Inhale. Exhale. Let those shoulder blade ease down and wide. Take a cycle or two of breath (inhale-exhale). Notice where the breath feels spacious or constricted. What happens if you inhale to fill the upper chest? What happens if you exhale to empty the abdomen? Think of drawing the navel toward the spine.

4. Move the hands even closer together. Palms might meet overhead. Root and reach-reach-reach. Inhale. Exhale. Let those shoulder blade ease down and wide. Take a cycle or two of breath. Notice where the breath feels spacious or constricted. How can you invite breath throughout the body? Breathe.

5. Ahhhhh….let the arms drift down, down, down until they rest at your sides. Notice any sensations the body’s experiencing. And let that noticing go, too. 

6. Resume your activities!

For ourselves and others

Finding some ease within oneself, physically and emotionally, can allow one to do one’s work–and by work I mean the actions of daily life–more adroitly.

“This body and heart can be tools for peacemaking. But they are only valuable tools when they have vitality and energy. We study ourselves so we can move beyond this self. What you learn about is you. When you study this “you” closely, you start to disappear. Even if you find a terrible person inside you, if you look at it closely, it doesn’t stand up. Nothing really does. At bottom, we cannot be reduced to one thing. Even spikes of craving only last for a few minutes at a time. Because our cravings and addictions can be so exhausting, it’s important that we learn from them and transform these old habits so we can become useful tools for social change. We practice both for ourselves and for the culture at large.” – Awake in the World

People who have bottomed out and kept going–like the inmates I’ve written poetry with or friends I’ve known who were undone by alcoholism or mental illnesses–convey that no one can be reduced to one thing, one incident, one word. Nothing’s that simple.

Yoga offers practice in being resilient and flexible, falling moment by moment in and out of equilibrium. Sometimes the practice of asana resembles the process of receiving or making a poem. A single moment depends on recognizing the context of other moments. And what seems like one hour’s practice or one sole poem that can be framed by the clock or the page is really a part of every practice and every poem. As we are all connected to one another.

Lynx Ears

Lynx Ears

Sit in a chair, sit on the floor or stand. If you’re sitting in a chair, come to the forward edge of the seat bottom. Align feet under knees. If you’re sitting cross-legged on the floor, place a firm pillow or folded blanket under your bottom and support the knees with pillows as needed. Aim to elevate hips higher than knees. Standing? Experiment with feet about hip width apart, place a soft bend in the knees, bring shoulders over hips, ears over shoulders, chin parallel with the ground.

Sitters, feel the connection of the sitting bones with the chair or floor. Standers, feel grounded through the soles of the feet. Close the eyes or cast the gaze down and forward. Now, imagine tufts, like those of a lynx, at the tip-top edge of your ears. Allow those tufts to lift the ears subtly, as if they’re reaching gently up. You may or may not experience any muscular movement. You’re imagining space above the crown of the head, buoyancy of the ears, their openness. You’re rooting into the earth while connecting a little with the sky. Sigh.

 

Yoga works for jerks

During the weeks of December, I spent time with a couple of self-described jerks: Neal Pollack and Nick Rosen.

In Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude, Neal Pollack, a Gen-X writer whose snarkiness derails him from the fast-track of authorial fame, applies self-deprecating humor to describe his discovery of yoga at a Texas gym and how continued study — in small in-home studios and at retreats — transforms him from being a self-pitying pothead to a thoughtful and employed dad and husband. Well, by the book’s end, his stoner status is unclear, but he’s definitely tamed his misplaced pride.

In Enlighten Up!, another self-important cynic tells his yoga tale. Nick Rosen starts Seeking Something, anything, the way bored teenagers skulked through indoor malls in the 90s heydays of chain-store shopping. His travels take him to India where he meets with B K S Iyengar. (My favorite scene is when Iyengar, realizing the neediness of his interviewer, calls over his shoulder for a cup of coffee.) By the documentary’s end, Rosen has left New York to pick up his journalism career in Colorado, writing about rock climbing. He’s learned to talk less and listen more. To be less ostensibly ambitious and more introspective.

Though it was unpleasant, these fellas’ stories refracted bits of my more unlikable and distant, long ago, past self. As for Rosen and Pollack, my jerkiness presented in the past (did I mention the past? I hope, we hope in the past!) as arrogance. Being a gossip girl was not my problem. That would require a clique. My ego liked to drive the course alone, windows rolled down, howling the ballad of the lone wolf. Well, you know what? Yoga does not require a car or even much of an ego. And wolves thrive in packs.

Once upon a time…the ideal after-school snack.

A paradox of Yoga, is that the more time one spends practicing, the less one actually thinks about oneself. I think this is because of the moment-by-moment awareness that accompanies attention to breathing, and because of the engagement in movement without performance or competition, purely for the sake of it. When I kept a journal, and when writing poems, essays and stories was the primary focus of my days, I dwelled mostly in the past or future. I recalled an experience to write about. Or anticipated a reply after submitting for publication.

Tolstoy traveling light.

Over the holidays, I also read about how Tolstoy came to realize that his writing life was overly self-serving. He stopped creating spectacular novels and turned to the complex simplicity of belief, belief in the potential of human beings to be kind with a little help from faith in something beyond their own minds. Or, even, as in the instances of Pollack and Rosen, faith in the potential of a person to choose, in Oprah-speak, to be his (or her!) best self. And in Living with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich describes how paddling a kayak among untamed animals in the Florida Keys softens her resistance to the possibility of the existence of something more than what humans’ tools measure.

De-jerking is a slow road. Like turkey, spicy sausage, snowball cupcakes, beer, gossip, (4 cups in a row of) coffee, jealousy, greed, salty language and anger, acting like a twit and a twerp, has not been easy to give up. The “I” of the ego is a giant LED billboard on personality’s divided highway of fear and ambition. It’s impossible to not see the billboard; it blights the landscape; it takes discipline to glean the relevant information then look away. 

In this extended analogy, the body is a vehicle, a trusted car. It may be dinged up, but you know its quirks and therefore can travel safely. Moving through a few yoga poses helps keep that ride in tune. The yamas and niyamas of yoga, referred to as ethical guidelines, help, too. They’re like practical reflective green signs pointing out rest areas. These two lanes of the physical practice of asana and the mental practice of reflection provide us with information. Knowing onself is a prerequisite to being genial. And who wouldn’t want to be sympathetic and good-natured?

I learned to shift gears in a Capri. I see possibility here among the weeds.

Rosen finds peace among desert rocks, Pollack in parenthood; I find that, as much as I love to be outside walking alone or at home puzzling over a poem, I feel the greatest clarity and contentment when teaching. My favorite time to practice on the mat is when planning a class. It’s like preparing a hike for others, taking into account the situation, weather conditions, terrain, time of day, and the needs and desires of the people involved. My favorite time to write is composing these thoughts to cast into the Net. Thanks again for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The practice of love

Welcome!

2015 is here. Begin.

“Fundamentally, to begin the practice of love we must slow down and be still enough to bear witness in the present moment. If we accept that love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust, we can then be guided by this understanding.”

The full essay by bell hooks is worth a read.