Monday, November 7, 2011

Trudging Through Austin

“In my dream, I ride the tiger.
I grasp the prickly fur between her shoulders.
She is small and safe and docile
In my dream.
In reality….”
Well, reality is always different from the dream, isn’t it?
This is the beginning of a slam poem that I think I debuted at the regionals in Americus, Ga., in 1998, and at the nationals in Austin. My memories of that time are a little bit murky. It was my first National Poetry Slam, ditto regionals, and I was on the team by default. I think I had come in fifth in the local contest, so when somebody better than me defaulted, I got promoted to the team, and I was eager to participate, despite my limited arsenal of poems.
Another teammate, the awesome Chris McCorkindale, and I were considered the weak sisters of the group. Xine, a proven star – an absolutely awesome writer and performer, and Jon Somebody were the stars. But we were a team, and the whole process was creative, mad and exciting.
Our slam master and coach, Linda McCorkindale, was unable to make the trip to Austin, so our little raggle-taggle band were expected to “all get along” and to take coaching by long-distance (cell phones were not yet ubiquitous).
We flew to Austin, opted against the expense of a rental car and depended on public transport to get us from Point A to Point B. Most of the poetry venues were in Austin’s legendary music district, and a bus trundled us from our very cool little motel with lots of Southwest touches – the stucco (or is it adobe?), the cactus, the aquamarine swimming pool – and a fabulous Tex-Mex restaurant attached where we could get cheap breakfast burritos and pots of coffee to fuel us through the manic days of practice, arguments and competitions.
I remember looking in the mirror and feeling really old. My hair was lank. I had uncharacteristic dark circles under my eyes. The thing I didn’t understand most was my swollen belly. I weighed the same as I always had, but I had taken to wearing anything that didn’t put pressure on my middle – both for the look and feel of it.
The usual rush of performance-excitement adrenaline was not keeping me fueled. Still, we tramped the streets of Austin for hours, and spent nights in smoke-filled rooms (ancient times before the days of no-smoking everywhere). I collapsed into bed before everybody. Romance and adventure raged around me. I trudged and slept.
Sometime during this whirlwind, I got to talk with teammate Chris who was teaching Ashtanga-style Yoga at the time. We practiced a little by the pool, and she explained to me that there were two kinds of Yoga: Ashtanga, which was very fast-flowing and characterized by Sun Salutes and athleticism, and Iyengar, which was a slower, pose-by-pose style that used lots of props. (This is how I remember it, Chris. Feel free to describe your experience of that time.)
I couldn’t figure out where the Yoga that I had practiced fit into this scheme: Yoga that I’d practiced 30 years before in Bamberg, SC, from a book called “Yoga for Perfect Health” by Alain (turns out, it was loosely based on Iyengar style); the Yoga of teachers with whom I had connected in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Kundalini and Kripalu); and the Yoga of Sri Swami Satchidananda, all of which I think of as classical or traditional Yoga.
I enjoyed practicing with Chris by that funky motel pool. We were determined to take at least a modicum of care for our bodies in between driving them through rounds of competitive-poetry performance and late nights.
The Winston-Salem Slam Team did not exactly distinguish itself at the nationals that year. I returned to the newsroom exhausted, a little bit wiser (but not much) and worried about my health.
Next stop: Yogaville – the Sri Swami Satchidananda Integral Yoga Ashram – in Buckingham, VA.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Who Am I?

Fast-forward to the present – Sept. 17, 2011.

My current bio reads like this:

“Lynn Felder is author of the DVD, ‘Gentle Yoga for Cancer Patients: Reconnecting Body, Mind & Spirit,’ and she empowers people living with cancer and chronic illnesses to take charge of their recovery using Yoga.

“Practicing Yoga was instrumental to Lynn's own recovery from cancer in 1999, and she has been teaching this population at Wake Forest Baptist Health – in four research studies and in ongoing classes - since 2004.

 “She teaches back-care/restorative and Flow Yoga classes (since 2001) at the Yoga Gallery, where she is co-director.

“An avid ballroom dancer, Lynn has won awards in both regulated and charity dance competitions.

 “After a career in corporate journalism, she now writes about dance, theater and Yoga for newspapers and magazines and has a book project and a new DVD currently in development.”

But is this really who I am? Not exactly.

This body was born in South Carolina in the 1950s. It always loved to dance and play. It took ballet from 6 to 12 years old; discovered Yoga in a book, played basketball and led cheers in high school; trailed after Daddy on hunting and fishing trips; swam with Mama in the gray-green Atlantic Ocean and the cool black water of the Edisto River.

In college, it took modern dance and gymnastics; then more ballet, contemporary dance; Tae Kwon Do; Jazzercise; running; bicycling; kayaking; hiking. You name it; this body has done it.

When this body got cancer in 1998, I thought I was going to lose it – my body, that is.

And I realized that if I could think that I was going to lose my body – which is what death is: the loss of the body – then I could not BE the body. I saw that I have a body, but I am not my body.

Conveniently, this mind was born into this body.

When you consider that the spinal column extends from the base of the skull nearly into the tailbone and that the mind and body are connected through an impossibly complicated network of nerves and blood vessels that are all operated by hormones and electrical currents, then you can see how the mind and body are not separate, as we sometimes perceive, but truly united.

My mind always loved reading and writing. It made the decision early on to be a writer and had its first story published in my hometown newspaper when it was 7.

It went to college and studied everything that it could get its hands on. It started out majoring in theater because journalism was too competitive – logic is not ALWAYS its strong suit – then it switched to history, because it had exempted freshman history, then it got bored, switched to philosophy and religion.

Somewhat predictably – this was the 1960s, after all - it turned on, tuned in and dropped out for a year or so, finally graduating with a degree in English Literature and a whole bunch of fairly useless knowledge about art history and film.

An English degree prepares one for nothing but allows one to do anything.
My only discernable skill was a gift of gab, but I lacked the discretion that might have tempered my volubility into a virtue.

In spite of itself, my mind found its way into arts administration for a few years and finally into newsroom journalism where it settled down and stayed for 25 years.

About 15 years in, though, my mind hit a wall. While it succeeded wonderfully in my career, it failed me again and again in matters of the heart.

I finally had to acknowledge that I had feelings – emotions, ugh! – I was more than a brain in a body.

Descartes was wrong: I have a mind, but I am not my mind, and those matters of the heart will have to wait for another story and another day.

Just take my word for it. I have feelings, but I am not my feelings.

When I began a serious Yoga practice 10 years ago, I soon learned a technique called The Witness Practice that teaches us how to dis-identify with the things of this world and to identify more closely with the one thing that never changes.

When your body ails and ages, it’s helpful to remember that YOU are not your body.

When the mind is fretful, it’s soothing to remember that YOU are not your mind.

When your feelings overwhelm you, it’s calming to realize that YOU are not your feelings.

Do you have a friend whom you’ve known for most of your life – a friend who you knew as a little child?

Maybe you were in first grade together, played together after school. Maybe after college, you and this friend were separated for many years. Then one day, you reunite. The friend has gained weight, has new interests, new hobbies, a different personality, different (or no) hair and even new politics, but you can still recognize the old friend somewhere inside all those changes. That is the True Self, the unchanging One.

I have brought three passions with me from youth to middle age: Yoga, dance and writing, but I am not these things.

I have a body, but I am not this body.

I have a mind, but I am not this mind.

I have emotions, but I am not these emotions.

The body, the mind, the feelings are constantly in flux, but our True Nature never changes.

Yoga teaches that my True Nature is Truth Absolute, Knowledge Absolute and Bliss Absolute.

And so is yours.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

6 cities in 6 months

The six-month run-up to my diagnosis was a blur of activity, and, in hindsight, I see it as a frantic search for meaning. I had just left a pretty serious relationship, because, like most of my previous relationships, my man-friend and I just seemed to hit an emotional wall and not know where to go from there.

Despite the best efforts of therapists and self-help books and programs, I had reverted to my habitual emotional stagnation, finding myself in romances with men who were just like me. After a certain level of intimacy, neither of us had the know-how or inclination to take the next step into the messy places of the heart.

So, once again, I set romance aside and started “doing stuff.” That was my default mode. Lonely? Go dancing. Sad? Take a bike ride. It’s a much better choice than sitting on the couch and stuffing your face or drinking yourself into oblivion. But activity, as I was to learn the hard way, is not always an option.

At that time, however, activity was both an effective way for me to soothe my feelings and a functional tool of meaning-making and self-expression.

I visited six cities in six months, and each of them seemed to contain a theme. The trip to New York City was all about art.

In July I visited my friend, Suzanne, who was staying at her sister’s 12th-floor apartment on Park Avenue South. It’s the fanciest address I’ve ever had in New York, with its spectacular view up Central Park and the grand buildings alongside it. Suzanne was studying acting for the summer and working at a caviar boutique up the street. Suzanne is very cool.

We went to see a revival of “Chicago,” which she didn’t like because she hates musicals, and which I loved, because Bebe Neuwirth (Lilith on “Frasier”) played Vilma and because I just love “Chicago.” The music totally rocks: “Razzle Dazzle,” “Cell Block Tango.” “When You’re Good to Mama” has to be the only song in history that finds a way to rhyme “reciprocity” with “love me.” What’s not to love?

We also went to see “Villa Villa” by an Argentinean dance-theater company called De La Guardia. Beautiful boys and girls (Dancers are always called boys and girls regardless of how old they are.) performed on wires and pulleys overhead, while the audience stood the whole time, craning to look up and around at dancers on balconies and in midair. I went to see the lush and colorful Bonnard show at the Museum of Modern Art. Suzanne, her friend Neal and I went to the Cloisters climbed to a bell tower at The Riverside Church in Harlem to see their amazing carillon.

Suzanne and I went to “Slamnation,” a film about poetry slams, and to the Nuyorican Poets Café, a famous venue for slam poetry, spoken word and hip hop on the lower East Side. She and I were both slammers at the time. We were going to try to get on the bill, but I couldn’t stay up that late. I was crashing, just beginning to feel the degradation of my previously prodigious energy. I was having a hard time keeping up with Suzanne, and this was new for me.

Next week, we go to Austin to compete in the National Poetry Slam, and try to keep up with lovely people half our age, then on to Yogaville in Virginia, to Kansas City and Cherokee.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Single Ouch

The Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
This journey begins with a single “Ouch!”, the one that I yelped on Dr. Rawlings’ table during a routine pelvic exam. She poked again. I yelped again.
“There’s definitely something going on,” she said. I didn’t like what was going on, for sure, and things didn’t go much better for about a year after that.
This was the beginning of my journey into the world of cancer, treatment and, finally, healing.
Some people dread and fear cancer all of their lives, but I never imagined that I would get cancer – many other things, perhaps, and I had already overcome addiction to alcohol and other drugs, but a diagnosis of cancer had never entered my mind.
After all, I was healthy. Seriously. I ate right, mostly. I exercised. In fact, I loved to exercise. Dancing. Biking. In my new home in North Carolina, I was hiking nearly every weekend. I hadn’t drunk alcohol or smoked anything for years.
The irony – and also the blessing – that would follow me every step of the way on this new journey was that I was perfectly healthy, strong and fit, except, oh, by the way, I had cancer. I was in my late 40s, at the peak of my career as a journalist. I had just bought my first house. I was surrounded by beloved friends and family. Sort of.
And I had cancer. Only I didn’t know it yet.
After more poking at her end and more yelping at mine, Dr. Rawlings said I could get up and get dressed. I haven’t seen her for 10 years, but I’ll never forget her. She was petite, blonde and impossibly young, dealing with a slightly manic 48-year-old woman who she thought might have cancer.
She recommended a sonogram and sent me home. I was thinking I had fibroid tumors. I’m glad I didn’t know what she was thinking.
At the time, I was preoccupied with work, running a 13-person features department at a good, mid-size newspaper. I love journalists. We are nutty, neurotic and egotistical but each in our own unique way, so going to work was always diverting. I had recently returned from a national features-editor conference in Kansas City feeling inspired and second-rate by turns as I always did after those meetings.
I was also participating in the slam-poetry scene that was sweeping the nation and had been to Austin in August with the local team. More of the same personality types only more-so. Since poets are full-blown artists their neuroses are even more fully evolved than those of journalists.
I had broken up with a pretty serious boyfriend the previous July after an 18-month relationship. I wasn’t exactly at loose ends, because I had plenty of things happening in my life: all of the above, and I’d been to a Yoga ashram in Virginia Labor Day weekend; I was getting ready to go to a 12-step conference in Cherokee sponsored by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, taking contemporary dance lessons, and going to contra- and swing dances.
But something was not right with me, and on some level I knew it. Despite my high level of activity, I felt bone-tired when I stopped to rest. I was sleeping 12 hours on weekend nights. My belly seemed big and kind of hard, despite maintaining my normal weight. My low back hurt. I was having abdominal discomfort that made me hold my breath, not only against the pain but also in fear. My period had stopped, and I felt sad.
I would feel a lot more sadness, pain and fear before it was all over.