Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Inside Water

There’s a famous quote from Bruce Lee, martial arts legend, where he said:

Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

Water takes the shape of its container.

Tonight I was sitting in the car driving home from our final residential trip to our local storytelling venue with my partner Laura.  Laura and I are about to move to Kansas City – big move.  We’ve both been in the Boston area for more than 20 years and more importantly, we grew up as storytellers here.  We each learned under the tutelage of Brother Blue, famed storyteller and self proclaimed holy fool for story.  And now, because of a job layoff and new exciting job opportunity, we’re moving to Kansas City.  Sitting there in the car we talked about our what we are taking with us from our community – from our nest.

Many saw Brother Blue as a colorful character.  He only wore blue from head to toe.  When performing he wore balloons pinned to his shirt, butterfly pins on his clothing and hat, butterflies hand drawn with sharpie on the palms of his hands and on his face, and a spectacular sash across his chest proclaiming him as a storyteller. And when he opened his mouth, what came out was more than stories.  It was him that came out, it was you, it was the world as he saw it and then as you saw it.  It was magic and holy and crazy and dream-like and sometimes hard to comprehend.  But it was always from someone who lived story, not just told stories.

We each have the power to change the world in some way.  Blue compelled us to tell stories from the middle of the middle of us to the middle of the middle of those who hear our stories.  The storyteller’s job is to give water – give stories that take the shape of the listener – every listener.  The world is a thirsty place for more than what can fit in a cup.  We need to give them life.

And as Laura and I travel to a new home 1500 miles away, we know we take water with us.  We will bring our stories.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Glide Faith

It happened again.  And I love it every time it happens.  That moment when I’m working with a student and they “get it.”  They have that sudden realization that they’ve just achieved something they never thought they could do in the water.  That moment when, after trying again and again, something clicks due to some image I gave them, some phrase, some change in the cosmic vibrations of the pool – and they get it, what ever it is.  And when they get it, they just grin.  Not a small grin, but one of those big ear to ear grins that would turn them tomato red if they could see their own face.  But fortunately they can’t and continue enjoying the moment.

I was working with a new student in her 20’s who had never taken formal swimming lessons.  Before our first lesson when we were sitting and talking, she told me her goals were to pass a necessary swimming test for boating, generally be more comfortable in the water and perhaps, in a couple years, do a triathlon.  She was already a runner, but she needed to learn how to swim.  And to that I said great, let’s get started.  In my mind I said, THANK YOU FOR NOT REGISTERING FOR A TRIATHLON NEXT MONTH.  I know that for some people setting such a deadline is just the motivation they thrive on.  But where’s the joy in pre-registering for a plan to almost drown or worse, being successful at it?

Once we got in the water, for someone who never took a swim lesson, she sailed through the rudimentary stuff.  Back float, front float, flutter kick on the wall and flutter kick with a board.  I had to work a little to calm her, get her smiling, get her laughing.  I had to help her understand that if she tenses her neck, her legs will sink.  Which is counter intuitive, since the legs are about a body length away from the neck, yet this is true for many people.  She pushed off the wall and did front glide well enough after a couple attempts, no problem.  Then back glide.  Problem.

The glide is an act of faith.  To do the front glide, you have to push off the wall with your legs, but it’s best to put your face in the water first with your arms outstretched in front of you.  You have to push off the safety of the wall assuming a position that leaves you unable to see where you’re going, since you should be looking directly down at the bottom of the pool, body shaped like a missile.  Plus all the investment is made up front.  Once you push off, you’re supposed to be still and sleek, slipping through the water and staying up with no additional propulsion from hands or feet.  You gotta invest everything up front and enjoy the ride.

But the back glide is an even greater act of faith.  Still all the energy investment is up front – you pay at the door.  But one must fight instinct.  Because everything that’s instinctive for adults to do and not do destroys the back glide.

First you push off from the wall as if you’re jumping up off the floor – but horizontally.  It’s instinctive to keep your feet flat, as if in preparation for that eventual landing back on the ground.  But the back glide rewards toe pointing – streamlining the body to make better use of the energy paid up front.  One leaps from the wall to fly, not land.  Have faith.

The next instinctive thing is to look where you’ve been – to lift your head, putting chin to chest so you can see down towards your feet.  But then that neck/leg connection comes into effect, the legs sink, feet hit the bottom of the pool and the glider stands up.  Instead one must relax and gaze skyward.  It’s the ceiling or stars that hold the secret.  Look up and have faith that the water holds no malice.  Don’t encourage it to drop you and it knows no better than to support you.
Little children listen to swimming instructors with complete faith.  And when you think about it, it’s amazing!  “Point your toes after you push off.”  And they do it.   “Head back – relax.”  And they do that too.  They soar on their back on request.  They’re like little water faith machines, unable to conceive of falsehood, while many adults have to work to revive that child inside.  My job is to help someone learn to soar that first time, so they never have to touch down again.  To fly.

I may not have looked like a tomato, but when my student finally flew, I grinned from ear to ear.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

My Mexico City

At the time I’m writing this in June/July of 2012, every muscle of my middle aged body is aware that this is an Olympic year.  Which means that if the TV network that airs the Olympics in the US doesn’t screw it up like in previous years, I will be transfixed and transported in front of the TV again, just as I was when I was a kid.  To me nothing compares to the Olympics.  There is no other sporting event, no post season madness, bowl game, or cup final that compares to the romance, heart and drive the Summer Olympics have for me.  It’s where I learned things that school would never teach me.  Sitting in front of my black and white TV as a 10 year old in 1968, I was there.  The glow of the cathode ray tube may have been in South Philadelphia, but in ‘68 my soul was in Mexico City.

I lived with my mother and maternal grandparents.  My older sister lived there too, but by that time she was either off at college or working somewhere.  And since my mother worked two jobs to support us all, I watched all TV, including the ’68 Olympics, either by myself or with my grandfather, a former boxer.  Whenever boxing was on, Olympics or not, and especially when there were black boxers fighting, like the then 19 year old George Foreman who won the gold medal that year fighting a Russian, my grandpop watched.  And during the middle of that James Bond / Man From U.N.C.L.E., cold war era of ‘68, as George stood tall, my grandpop cheered, even though he could barely see the bouts.  My grandpop was then blind in one eye and had bad sight in the other, so he watched our TV with his face inches from the screen.  And still he couldn’t see clearly.  Watching boxing with grandpop sounded something like this:
   “Hey, is he black?”
   “Yes grandpop, he’s black.”
   “And what about that guy?”
   “No he’s from Poland – not black.”
   “Are you sure?  Play with that knob on the side again.”
   “I can play with the contrast knob all day grandpop, but the Polish guy is not black.”

Even though my Mexico City Olympic experience was seen from an acute angle in order to see around my grandpop, whose forehead kissed the screen, I was still transported.

Jim Hines winning the 100m dash.
To this day three images from that time stand out for me.  Images that have been circulating in my mind since before puberty and will hang with me until the day I stop competing in this sprint called life.  The first image is that of black men flying across our TV.  Now I loved to run when I was small and I knew I was fast.  But what I saw in ’68 were men my color, who went to college, flying around a track.  I saw them muscling around curves and down straight-aways, not as if they were getting away with something, but like they owned the track.  Go to college, run track, be the best in the world.  Oh ok. That’s the sequence?  Got it.  My ten year old mind had a model to follow – go to college, compete, be the best.  OK.

And that other guy?  Australian Peter Norman won
silver and on the podium wore the badge for the
Olympic Project for Human Rights.  He was left
off the 1972 Australian team.
The second image is fists in the air. Tommy Smith and John Carlos, after winning gold and bronze in the men’s 200m dash, made their awards ceremony a salute to the struggles of kids like me and a protest visible enough to wake up the world.  The ’68 Olympics were the first real televised Olympics for Americans.  Just south of the border, we didn’t have the time zone issues of Rome or Tokyo in ’60 and ’64. It was a live televised event.  So the live black power salute during the national anthem also served as a wakeup call to Americans who wanted to believe that trouble makers like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X could be contained within our borders, and were never - never in a position to represent our flag like Smith and Carlos.  It was a lesson in how national policies of ignorance, like racism, represent our country just as much as national athletic pride.  Smith and Carols were champions who wanted everyone to know something about the competition they faced off the track everyday.  And at 10 years old I learned that sometimes to be the best, you have to stand up, even if no one else is standing.

The third image is of the water, in an event that according to online records, never actually took place at the ’68 Olympics.  Yet I have this memory and it is vivid.  Perhaps what I’m remembering is something from the very popular ABC Wide World of Sports, since ABC was the network that aired the Olympics in the US that year.  Perhaps when I was home from summer camp and watching ABC in preparation for the Olympics, which actually took place in October, ABC featured a sport I had never seen before.  What I remember is men standing tall and powerful on the craggy peak of a cliff, high above the water. [Image: cliff diver] The backdrop behind them was more cliffs and the expanse of the ocean.  Below them were waves waxing and waning, as each man chose his moment to gracefully leap, the camera following them all the way down to a tiny splash, just feet away from the rocks below.  I had never seen cliff diving before.  It was hypnotic.  The divers would just stand there for who knows how long, waiting for the water, that appeared to be about a mile below them, to be just right.  How could they even see it?  These guys – and they were all guys, who on our black and white TV all looked like they had that George Hamilton 60’s TV California tan, though I’m likely remembering the Mexican athletes – these guys stood on cliffs!  First off, I didn’t even understand how they got up there.  It’s like an Olympic event to haul their ass up to top of a death defying piece of rock.  But then to stand there like a Rio de Janeiro Jesus and jump – and make it beautiful!?

This was a relationship with water that I knew nothing about.  That one could be on the highest part of the earth, essentially be a part of the sky, and fling themselves elegantly into the waiting arms of the water below.  I know that I could never judge such a competition.  It would be like grading prayer.  How does one measure individual skill, wrapped so tightly in faith, belief and the wisdom of knowing how to navigate so quickly through the worlds of earth, sky and water.  “You get the gold, you get the silver, and you the bronze.”  Yeah, whatever.  At 10 years old in 1968 I learned that success sometimes means taking a leap, falling with grace, and even with a tiny splash, celebrating life.

Monday, January 16, 2012

MLK 2012

Today we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martian Luther King Jr.  I write this post sitting in a café, surrounded by people.  Fifty years ago it still would have been possible for me, an African American, to sit and sip coffee with others who don’t look like me, in this restaurant chain in Boston, but it would have been noticed.  I would have stood out. I would have had to pick the café with care, as some neighborhoods felt the need to keep obvious outsiders from being comfortable in their tiny corner of the metropolis.  And while perhaps I could do this in Boston, south of the Mason-Dixon line, my choices of establishment would be very limited, even given the same restaurant chain.  Choosing carefully would have meant choosing life. But today I am surrounded by blondes, brunettes, dark skin, light skin, people whose parents came from other countries, and people who probably speak another language at home.  As I stood in line behind a police officer, a white man perhaps a decade younger and a number of inches shorter than I am, I was aware of just how much the world has changed and yet how subtle that change is.  The officer completely ignored me.  I posed no innate threat to him or this establishment.  I was just another citizen.  

Photo by John Chuckman - http://chuckmanchicagonostalgia.wordpress.com
When Dr. King was alive, I did not have the privilege of just being another citizen, not even in the northern U.S. In a previous post I told the story of clearing the pool, when ignorant people made a choice in the 1960’s that was to my family’s benefit.  If any of you come from families that have made similar choices in the past, I say thank you on behalf of my family, though I hope you have gained some love and understanding over the years.  Because you are reading this blog, I’m guessing you have.

Last week my partner alerted me to a CNN article about a 31 year-old Ohio landlord who put a “Whites Only” sign on the fence surrounding her pool after seeing the biracial daughter of a white tenant swimming. This didn’t happen in 1961, but in 2011.  The landlord is not 81, but 31. And it didn’t happen below the Mason-Dixon line, it happened in Ohio, though in 2011 that should no longer be relevant.  Still, it happened.  It happened because the US is scarred by its racist past in ways that remain invisible until poked and exposed, hidden and yet too numerous to count.

Part of what my mother did as she taught swimming at the Center City Philadelphia YWCA in the 1960’s and 70’s was to help make Dr.’s King’s dream a reality.  When little black boys and black girls joined little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers in my mother’s pool, the dream was real.  Under her watchful eye she gave them the gift of life, a survival skill that they would never forget.  And this gift came from a black woman at a time when black women where all too often invisible or disempowered by white society.  Who knows what these children heard at home, but in her pool the dream was alive and it had a face.
We can not change everyone’s mind and we can not all be a Dr. King.  But in what we do everyday, in who we are everyday, we can stretch, we can reach, we can spread our arms wide and embrace a beautiful diverse world.  And in that embrace we can truly be free at last.