Message from Guan Yin: a poem for comfort

In the spring of 2002, my theater company mounted a new play called Red Thread. In it, I played the Goddess, Guan Yin (aka Kwan Yin). It was the last production I did on my feet and, in fact, the last production I did with my company. I was injured a few months later.

It was a small role, a tasty role. It had a short dance which I choreographed. And it wasn’t my first introduction to this Goddess. Already for many years, I’d been acquainted with Guan Yin.

She emerged from Buddhist tradition in China but belongs to many religious faiths and countries. To this day, She is the primary deity of millions of people. Her herstory is complex but one of the things I love most is that She emerged in various regions at once, coming into human consciousness in response to a deeply motivated, apparently universal human need: compassion.

It is theorized that the austerity of early Buddhism awakened this need across boundaries, and people throughout a wide region began to seek a kinder presence, a loving and forgiving presence, a female presence. From there, the legends of Guan Yin were born. She is the Mother of All. Goddess of Compassion, Protectress of Mothers and their Children (which is all of us). She is the Bearer of Children, who blesses women with fertility, fruitful pregnancies, and safe births. Guan Yin is (this is my favorite) She Who Hears the Weeping World.

I am deeply moved by Her Spirit. When I invoke her name, I know that I am uttering the same sounds as millions of people before me, and those sounds vibrate with the most humble desires of humans — safety, tenderness, good health, and especially, children. As a woman and a mother, Guan Yin is very close to my heart. And in the years of struggle, particularly with cruel and overly demanding inner voices, I have turned to her for solace.

Today in my dance group, there was an altar to Guan Yin. This altar…

I spent a long time contemplating it. I imagined myself a tiny being, walking in this glacial blue land, coming to rest at the feet of Guan Yin. Such a peaceful, rejuvenating image.

It reminded me of a poem I wrote on the occasion of Red Thread’s opening night. I wrote it for my castmates, and most especially Dean, who wasn’t yet my Beloved but was a friend I loved, and whose pain, mostly hidden from the world, pulled heavily at my heart.

Today, I share it with you. May you find comfort for the places you are worn.

Message from Guan Yin

In the depth of sorrow, I am with you.

Through the pain of regret, I am there.

When all seems lost, and confusion has enfolded you

Reach out to find my hand.

I am the silence following your cry.

I am the faith inside your hopelessness.

I am compassion

Dissolving shame, anguish, and fear.

The eye of judgment belongs solely to you

For my eyes see only grace.

I give you tenderness

To give to yourself.

I give you comfort

To give to yourself.

I give you acceptance

To give to yourself.

In every moment of every day

I am here.

I am always here.

 

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My mother reflects her daughter’s light

My last quarter in college, I was notified that I’d be graduating Cum Laude, and I was invited to attend, with my special people, the honors convocation the night before graduation. I didn’t want to go.

When I told my parents I didn’t plan to attend, one tried to be sympathetic and understanding (probably my mother) and the other said, “What do you mean you’re not going. Of course you’re going.”

I don’t actually remember who said what, but I do remember a conversation my mother and I had about it. She asked me why I didn’t want to go and I told her the honor was meaningless. Pushed a little further, I explained that I hadn’t worked very hard in college so it must not be very difficult to earn Cum Laude honors. My mother deftly pointed out that my “ease” at earning Cum Laude didn’t indicate the honor was meaningless; it indicated that I was remarkable.

Oh.

Clearly, I hadn’t thought of it that way. And once she’d framed it so, I felt quite differently about it. I did, indeed, attend the convocation — proudly — with both my parents.

I was reminded of all this tonight in another conversation with my mother.

She’s been an avid follower of this blog and, tonight, she commented that she had no idea that I struggled with so much self-doubt and fear. That’s not the way I seem, she said, not the way I present.

I wasn’t surprised to hear this. I think most people are surprised when they discover my inner turmoil.

But what did surprise me was her reflection of me. She talked about the way I dive into life, both feet, whole hog, which isn’t news to me. But she also talked about how I affect people, just the way my “me-ness” for lack of a better word, makes other people feel.

This is what caused me to pause, and what reminded me of my college convocation. Because aside from too frequently forgetting who I am, I think I take for granted the effect she’s talking about. If it hasn’t always been that way, it’s been that way for a long time, and I can’t see myself as others see me. I don’t receive myself in the same way.

I’m certain that this is a common problem, that most of us fail to see just how remarkable we are. We fail to experience ourselves as those around us do. And it’s such a shame. Because we rock! All of us.

I’m so grateful that I have loving people in my life, my mother and others, to reflect this back to me. And I’ll continue to reflect it back to others as much as I can. Because it’s so important, and we should all have it.

Thank you, Mama. I love you.

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Gratitudes

I feel surprisingly sad at this moment. I have no idea why.

I spent the morning dancing with the ecstatic dance community in Los Angeles, my home away from home. I felt immense and overflowing joy. Tears poured down my face thinking of all the blessings in my life. And yet, in this moment, I feel sad. And yes, in this moment, I feel sad.

But rather than follow my curiosity down that hole, rather than pull out the magnifying glass for a closer look, I’m going to turn my attention to my gratitudes… And let spirit do the rest.

I am grateful for life, love, and dancing.

I am grateful for a community of people that make me laugh, hug, hoot and cry.

I am grateful for the space to be myself.

I am grateful for my magnificent son, Aidan Aleksei Strelkoff-Purvis, who loves me like a tree loves the sun.

I am grateful for motherhood, an unparalleled blessing in my life.

I am grateful for my Beloved, Dean, with whom I play, love, heal and reach.

I am grateful for the family that is me, Dean, Aidan and Reba. We, together, are everything I’ve ever wanted.

I’m grateful for my mother, who taught me how to love.

I’m grateful for my sisters, in whose fierce devotion I remember who I am.

I am grateful for babies everywhere, in whose eyes and smiles is reflected the true nature of humanity.

I’m grateful for creativity and the ability to express it.

I’m grateful for oatmeal with carrot ginger puree; kale and potato soup; beef marrow; lamb shanks; beet greens with butter; my mother’s borsch and flat bread; freshly pressed apple juice; and dark chocolate.

I’m grateful for stories.

I’m grateful for every person that has ever let me touch them, that has ever let me move with grace in their lives. I am grateful for those moments of precious connection.

I am bloody grateful for humor and laughter!

I am grateful for the drive to keep growing, and the courage to follow that drive.

I’m grateful for evolution.

And I am grateful for that spirit in me, which I cannot define, whose origin is a mystery, that inspires me to keep saying yes, that seeks and feeds this juicy, satisfying life.

Thank you for being here with me. Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

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Lessons from a cheesecake

Today, I took on cheesecake.

First I should say that I woke up this morning thinking, YEA! It’s a cooking day. That’s me in a nutshell. Not much more to say, really.

I’ve always loved to cook. I learned how to make pancakes and Jell-O when I was seven. I ate them together, probably because they were the two things I knew how to make. By nine, I was making English muffin pizzas but probably not the way other kids were making them. I didn’t like that the English muffins got soggy, so I toasted them first. Then I added dried herbs and garlic salt to the tomato sauce. I think I even experimented with cheeses. Foodies aren’t made. They’re born.

Well, a couple of months ago, I stumbled on a recipe for pumpkin cheesecake with a ginger snap/pecan crust and I thought, for Thanksgiving, I’m making that.

I’ve never made a cheesecake before. And, actually, I’ve done very little cooking in the last two years, since pregnancy laid me out and then motherhood demanded different priorities. Every couple of weeks, I make a big batch of baby food for Aidan and, here and there, I make a vegetable or a steak, but most of our cooking has been delegated to my assistant. Still, that ginger snap/pecan crust captured my imagination and it just had to be. So…

I minced ginger snaps, graham crackers, pecans, Rapadura and butter in the food processor and pressed it into a pan.

Blended cream cheese, pumpkin, eggs, xylitol, spices and vanilla and poured that on top.

Mixed sour cream with maple syrup and spread that over the par-baked cheesecake.

It was all going so well. And it was great to have a sous-chef. My assistant followed me around the kitchen, pulling out ingredients, measuring things, cleaning up after me. Brilliant.

And then it wouldn’t set. I kept checking on it, jiggling it, and it kept wiggling. Five minutes more. Then five minutes again. Then another five. Finally, I told my assistant, that’s it. Five more minutes, then I’m done.

I was in the bedroom getting dressed for dinner with my visiting in-laws when the timer went off. A couple of minutes later, I wheeled into the kitchen and saw my assistant standing in front of the oven. She was so still.

“I just ruined your cheesecake,” she said calmly. Quietly.

“What?” I said. I couldn’t compute.

“I ruined your cheesecake… Well, half of it.”

And then I saw it. A big glop of pumpkin cheesecake on the bottom of my oven. She’d tried to take the baking pan out of the oven, but the cheesecake pan slid on top of it and the unset cheesecake sloshed over the side. Into my oven. And down a vent into the broiler.

Oh my.

My poor assistant. I could feel in my heart the weight in hers. Hours of work. And for Thanksgiving.

But it didn’t matter. Not to me. I didn’t feel much about the cheesecake actually. Sure, it was mildly disappointing but shit happens. Sometimes, a lot. It’s just not that big of a deal.

I felt badly for my assistant, though. I don’t know how long it will take for her to recover. I tried to reassure her. Not sure how much it helped. She’s like me, a perfectionist with a wicked mean inner critic. There’s the real tragedy, because she’s such a gem, and such a blessing. Even when she spills pumpkin cheesecake all over the oven.

So, we’ll still be eating it tomorrow. It just won’t be pretty.

Actually, it will be pretty, now that I think of it. Its inner beauty — the joy I felt anticipating making it, the fun of actually doing it, the wholesome ingredients I used, the soul nourishment that was cooking it — is perfectly intact. And really, that’s worth a whole lot more to me.

So here’s to my assistant, Jamie, and a great opportunity to celebrate inner beauty.

 

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Remembering Ron Brown

When I was in sixth grade, I had a Social Studies teacher named Ron Brown. He was, hands down, the best teacher I ever had.

He was that rare and effective combination of highly engaging educator, firm and fair disciplinarian, and accessible, genuinely caring friend. I, and I’m sure most of my classmates, adored him.

I love Social Studies and yet, I barely remember anything my other Social Studies teachers taught. But his curriculum still sticks with me. We studied the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs; the Eskimos (as they were still being called); the ancient Greeks; we studied culture as a concept; we studied geography and Latin America. I remember memorizing the 21 things every culture needs. The list included “celebration” which struck me then (as evidenced by my remembering) and still.

I remember we had to invent a country, complete with a poster-sized map, specifically to include all the geography terms we’d learned, and a written report on the customs of the culture living there. Mine was Candy Island (original, huh?) in the shape of a Hershey’s kiss, with Cape something-or-other at the curly top. The inhabitants were called the Tarasites, after my dog, Tara (because nothing matters much more to an 11 year-old than her dog) (and I apparently didn’t know what a parasite was or, if I did, didn’t notice the similarity).

As a final project, we had to research a Latin American country and produce both an oral and written report. This was a BIG deal. We were supposed to cull not only the encyclopedia (which I, now, barely remember how to spell much less use) but also newspapers and magazines for current news. We had to research all different aspects of the country we’d chosen — economics, culture, geography, arts. A BIG deal.

I chose Columbia. But I never finished my report. I don’t remember if I got sick toward the end of that year or what, but I was behind in my work and I never got it finished. Mr. Brown gave me several extensions, and then invited me to come see him at school a few days after the term ended.

I remember meeting him in the principals office. Why there, I don’t remember. The principal wasn’t there. It was about a week after school ended, and I sensed that if I used that week to complete my report, he’d accept it. But I couldn’t get it together. That time in my life was very challenging. I was depressed a lot, sick a lot, just sort of floating. Mr. Brown was very supportive. Since I didn’t have anything to show him, he offered to take my grade in the class and drop it by one. I was so relieved. I got a B that semester.

He taught as part of a team. There were three teachers, he and two women who taught English and Math. And he was always joking with our math teacher that men were the superior sex. He would sometimes send a student to interrupt her class with a note bearing his latest evidence, or he’d pop in himself to make the point. Their playful argument lasted all year, and it was thrilling, as a student, to watch because it was funny and edgy and grown up, and we were being allowed to witness and even participate. In fact, I remember a lot of the girls, myself included, getting into it with him, arguing in our defense. But boy, if you took it out of the playful… Watch out.

I remember a boy who once spoke disrespectfully to our math teacher in front of Mr. Brown, and Mr. Brown blasted him. He said he liked to joke with Ms. Morehead but we shouldn’t misunderstand. She was an intelligent, capable, outstanding woman and he had the utmost respect for her. “Don’t ever speak like that to a woman, and certainly not your teacher.” It was so powerful, especially at that time, in the 70s. To hear a male teacher come out so strong for a female colleague, and women in general, was amazing, and really made an impression on 11 year-old me.

The 6th grade team gave out awards called “Sunshine Telegrams” to deserving students. Over the course of the year, everyone got one, and they acknowledged students for particular excellence. The whole grade would gather once a week or so, and the teachers would announce the recipients and share why they were chosen for the honor that week. It was another big deal, waiting to hear who was being honored and having your “excellence” shared with the whole group. Well, when it came my turn, it was Mr. Brown who presented the award (even though Ms. Morehead was my homeroom teacher).

I was always pestering Mr. Brown to say hello to me. If I saw him anywhere on campus, I’d say, “Hello, Mr. Brown!” And I’d expect him to say it back, no matter what else he was doing. Well, somehow, it became a game between us, trying to be the first one to say it.

I remember the day my classmates and I gathered for the Sunshine Telegrams and Mr. Brown started out by saying that this telegram had a private joke in it and that everyone else should just ignore it. Then he went on to say, “For excellence in Social Studies and Math… HELLO, Lyena.”

I was shocked he’d mentioned our joke in front of everyone, but it also made me feel really special. And, I think, that is what made him so special. At one time or another, he made all of us feel special.

But as much as I adored him as a sixth grader, it was his role in my life two years later that really sealed his place in my heart.

By eighth grade, the problems I’d been having coping with life had only gotten worse. My older sisters had moved away by then, and the pressures of puberty were pushing me past what I could handle. I needed somewhere safe to turn, someone I could talk to, who could help me sort out the tangle of emotions balled up inside me. I turned to Ron Brown.

At the morning break or during lunch, on particularly hard days, I’d wander up to his classroom and, if he was there, he’d let me hang out with him while he did whatever he was doing. I can’t remember a single time when he turned me away. He’d ask me what was up and I’d spill it — my fears or my confusion about something, my worries, my pain. And he’d listen to me. He’d give me advice and reassure me. God, so much reassurance. And then he’d give me a hug and I’d go back to the day, my edges just a little smoother, my seams a bit reinforced. Even seeing him in passing somewhere on campus had a calming effect on me. Somehow his love and care reminded me that I was OK, that things were going to be all right. He was my mirror, a mirror I could trust. And he never failed to remind me how special, smart, capable and valuable I was. I don’t know if he was aware of the impact he was having but, really, he kind of saved me.

Even when I was an adult, he kind of saved me.

In my late 20s, I hit a very scary emotional wall. I started having panic attacks and debilitating anxiety. It started quite suddenly and I didn’t know what was happening. Then, one night, I had a dream. I was in a beautiful room, decorated with long, flowing curtains and big, overstuffed pillows. Mr. Brown was there and I asked him what was going on. He said, “You don’t remember, do you?” I just looked at him, sort of dumbstruck. And he said, “You don’t remember.” It was so loving and gentle. When I woke up, I realized that there was something in my past I wasn’t remembering, something gnawing at me, causing the anxiety, and my subconscious had conjured the safest messenger it could think of to say it’s time to take a look.

That dream led me into therapy where I discovered what I hadn’t been remembering and the healing began. Everything I’ve done in life since then has been built on that healing, so it’s no small thing what my inner Mr. Brown did. And it wouldn’t have happened if the outer Mr. Brown hadn’t been who he was.

He died much too young of a heart attack.

My friend, Charlie, whom I hadn’t seen in years, came to my door a couple of days before the memorial to break the news. I was so stunned I didn’t know what to do.

When students, current and former, gathered with faculty, staff and parents on the playground of our school to remember him, I couldn’t sit still. People offered their stories and I paced the back of the crowd, unable to manage in any other way the grief that coursed through me. The tone of the memorial was celebratory, but it couldn’t unseat the devastation I felt.

For many years after that, while I, myself, was teaching, I invoked his spirit. And every year now, when I build our Beloved Dead altar in honor of Day of the Dead, I include a photo of Mr. Brown. I can only hope that when my son is older, he might have a teacher like Mr. Brown, so talented, so truly devoted to his students. I will never forget him, and I will always be deeply grateful to have been his student and he, my friend.

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