During my first summer at Naropa I signed up for Contemplative Dance Practice with Barbara Dilley. In the mornings the entire community sits together. Then we break off into workshops, poetry, painting, calligraphy, dance. On the phone someone told me to bring a cushion. Stuffed in my dance bag is a square yellow couch cushion. I look around the room at the special meditation cushions, all red, arranged in perfect rows. There’s Waldman. There’s Ginsberg, Simone Forti and Nancy Stark Smith and Ruth Zapora. There’s a Japanese Zen Master who seems ageless, arrives late, causing some anxiety from his attendants, Mike and Brigitta and Chris. As the door squeaks open and he walks in there is a palpable shift in the room. Even with all those people the silence is broad, thick.
I have a long way to go, I think, as I sit. Gluts of memories flood in. When I return to the next breath like I am instructed my joints ache and my back burns. Pain and boredom turn into self-loathing. I repeat to myself, I hate you. I am surprised at this. I think the paisley on the women’s scarf in front of me is evil. The swirly patterns look like they are jumping around meanly. When I tell Barbara Dilley about it she calmly says, “Oh, that happens. You don’t like paisley.”
She says to sit with a Zen master for my first practice is pretty much perfect. I could consider a light touch and keep a meditation journal. She speaks with equanimity. Whatever it is, anything at all it’s not an emergency. It’s great really. It’s just as it should be. That means, I’m OK. I can return to the next breath, the sense of this body. Thoughts come and go. That this thought belongs to me seems as silly as saying this breath is mine.
On a recent visit to Maine I ask for the keys. Mom wants to drive. “You are so selfish!” She says. Yes, I am that. “I am not ready to die,” This doesn’t go well. Also, I admit, I don’t want to lose control. What? I never had control to begin with. I push at that knowledge or fear it, ignore it. Every so often a small crack in the hard nugget of my certainty appears. I am going to die, presently dying in fact. Life is chaotic. Here we go anyway. I do not know what will happen to me. So— patterns are nice. Form is good. Do what you love, safety first, and all that. When it’s all- about- me, my little world collapses into an ego swirl. I swerve out of the ground and into my little thoughts about the ground. Vision becomes a tunnel.
Remember the really icy couple days where you couldn’t walk on the sidewalk last month without slipping? My neighbor, Sally, rat terrier, and I walk on frozen crunchy grass at the park. Someone’s taking photographs of a pine tree with what looks like prayer flags all around. As I attach my wish to a branch I hear the guy say on his phone, “Here comes someone now.” He’s from 9- news and I am being interviewed, for tonight. Luckily I am wearing my new gloves from Target and lip- gloss. I wonder why he doesn’t film the dog. I want to interview him. Was he born here? His parents? What does he think about immigration? Camera on. He tells me swastikas were etched into the playground swing set on the West side of the park. This tree of positivity is the response…and how do I feel about living in Longmont? I want to use this opportunity as a platform to voice my positions. But what are my positions? I’m blank. My being is swirling above my head. He asks me to read what I wrote on the tree, “Wake Up!” I say.
My friend Damaris knows I secretly long to be interviewed by Terri Gross. (Doesn’t everyone?) When I am driving or bored or cleaning the tub:
Tell me about your childhood, Katharine?
Oh, Terri…It was really un-exceptional, I humbly reply.
Did you have friends or were you lonely? When did you discover you were different, an artist, growing up in the suburbs of Cambridge, Mass?
Now that I think of it I used to sneak out of the house at night and write poems.
Fascinating! Terri would say….And weren’t you born at Emerson Hospital?
You’ve got a point there, Terri…
Cameraman shut his camera off. “There are consequences from our actions, as a nation.” he says, “We brought it on ourselves with our refusal to question our opinions.” Our conversation off camera was relevant and rich. I wasn’t on TV that evening and neither was Sally. The broadcasters and Weathercasters glowed in their well-fitted dresses, and suits, perfect hair, and shining eyes.
My bother, Roger Kaufman, is a Gay Centered psychotherapist in LA. After saying it’s a big topic he introduces Narcissism this way:
“An unrelenting need to be the center of attention (whether positive or negative) as a persistent compensation for a core feeling of shameful inferiority, worthlessness and/or insubstantiality.” (He also points out healthy narcissism is different, healthy).
Like the cameraman, I witness what happens to a nation when this narcissism, sickness and sense of exclusivity is pushed. If I only look outward I won’t understand it. A necessary and slightly horrifying realization occurs when I discover I am carving swastikas on my sense of self-worth. There is some confusion about the difference between taking care of myself and this self- condemnation or superficial gloat. The trick is to ask, what is actually happening at this very flash bucket.
When I was in high school I visited my cousin at UMASS, Amherst. We saw Angela Davis speak in a tremendous gymnasium. There weren’t enough chairs for all the people. So we folded chairs and sat on floor.
Forty-two years later Angela Davis is speaking through my kitchen radio. Shall I tell you how she goes? She wants us to re-visit the moment when slavery was abolished and begin the necessary work that never happened— to dismantle and radically re-construct our political system. Create a new political party inspired by the black radical tradition working class, anti-capitalist. A global movement around immigration and freedom. We need to learn to feel a spiritual connection with our ancestors and learn from those coming in the future. We need art and culture and mindfulness, she says. We need to stop inflicting violence on animals.
We need to stop thinking we know everything, just because we’re old [and I might add, or white, or hetero.] Old People, we need to get curious…*
That first summer at Naropa in 1992 was expensive. I drove a pickup truckload of marijuana all the way to Tucson to pay for it. I was there because I could no longer dance without getting sick. In Contemplative Dance I could lay on the ground and that was called a dance. That moment I lay without moving and looked up at the ceiling and shut my eyes with people all around me also lying on the ground, dear Terri Gross, changed everything. It occurred to me there was a difference between my ego clutch and actually taking care of each other because the moment is calling for a particular hold or sweep. I knew this from making dances and poems and by the way I took care of Sage, an Aussie mix and Matisse, a calico.
That summer in Naropa’s auditorium in the company of strangers, Kobun Chino walks around the room and pauses beside me. I think he’ll probably kick me out. He notices my mediation posture and his robe rustles as he kneels and gently shakes out and re-positions one finger at a time. My tears fall on our hands. His tears fall on our hands.
In Arroyo Secco, New Mexico, up El Salto Road and left on Paw A’ Suki two doors up you can park and go in the house of Hokoji Temple (I can show you where the outside key is hidden). If you go up the ladder to the tower room you will find a framed calligraphy from Kobun. This is the translation:
nourish your true
*Angela Davis. Beginnings, Movement, Possibility, Santa Fe, NM. Alternative Radio. Boulder, CO.