an independent voice for the arts in monterey county
Yesterday I taught my last tai chi class before my departure for Iowa City. After our qigong warm-up, we did the form three times, one time silently, the second time saying aloud the names of the movements, and the third time silently, and more slowly.
My first exposure to tai chi was in Malcolm X Park (aka Meridian Park) in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1998. It was taught by a German lesbian named Ute. Ute was slender, in her thirties, with pale blonde hair that fell to her shoulders and a fierce, knowing gaze. I can hardly imagine what she thought of me—I was so physically awkward, so self-conscious, utterly lost in my busy, academic head. But something had sparked my interest when I saw the little notice in the back pages of the Washington Blade, DC’s gay weekly, for community tai chi in the park.
For two months, I showed up every Friday morning, and then, without exactly making a conscious decision, I abandoned my efforts: I just stopped coming. I couldn’t seem to get my body to move that way. When Ute showed me White Crane Spreads Wings, I saw a body moving with the fluidity of nature, of a bird’s flight, of water, of wind-blown grass. My limbs and torso felt like a bunch of rigid puzzle pieces that didn’t fit together, let alone anything that might move with the ease and grace of tai chi.
But a seed was planted, a slow-growing seed that would eventually begin to sprout in the summer of 2008, when I enrolled in a tai chi class at the community college in Monterey. I still had my moments of awkwardness, but I had changed, my body had changed, and from that very first class, I knew that I was in the right place, and that I had found my teacher. I began my formal training the following year.
At class yesterday, the students had organized a farewell potluck celebration. Such a feast! I was used to sitting in a circle with them, for the short meditation practice we do between the qigong warm-up and the form practice, but all of us sitting around a table, sharing conversation amidst a generous assortment of delicious dishes, was a new experience. After we finished eating, one student recited a poem by Ferlinghetti, and another offered “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas. Some time ago, my students and I discovered a mutual affinity for memorizing and reciting poems. Tai chi could be thought of as poetic—the precision, the elements of repetition, the balance between form and flow.
One of the students had brought an enormous bouquet of flowers from her garden. I am not exaggerating when I say it is the most beautiful bouquet of flowers I have ever seen. Its sweet fragrance filled me with pleasure—it still does, as I write this just a few feet from where the bouquet sits, its flowers still giving off a deep floral scent of real flowers from real dirt, not grown in a flower factory thousands of miles away. I wish I could somehow hold on to this bouquet forever. It feels as if I would need that long to truly take in and absorb how much love and support and connection I felt from my beloved students yesterday. When I returned home with the flowers, I felt a small but persistent tinge of guilt, of shame, that old tiresome voice I keep trying to let go of, the one that says, “Who do you think you are? Do you really think you deserve a bouquet of flowers this beautiful?”
My teacher often tells me that tai chi is about planting seeds. When we do tai chi, we water the seeds we want to grow—seeds of health, and confidence, and balance, and vitality, and awareness, and compassion, and love. When we neglect our tai chi practice, the other seeds—the weedy seeds, the seeds of doubt, of shame, the seeds of those critical voices that have pestered me for far too long—will quickly overrun the garden. One of the benefits of being a tai chi instructor is the opportunity to keep one’s own practice alive and flourishing. I know that continuing my practice in Iowa will be a priority.
And if I must let go of this beautiful bouquet, whose petals are already beginning to droop, whose water will soon begin to turn cloudy, perhaps it is so that I can empty myself of this beauty to prepare myself for something else. When we do the movement called Cloud Hands, we hold our palms up as our arms slowly move in front of our bodies, our palms gently cupped, as if to hold something precious, and then we turn our palms down: just let it go. The cycle keeps repeating. Yesterday was my last tai chi class, my favorite class of all my classes. I am humbled by my students’ dedication, and their love. It is hard to say goodbye, very hard, and it is exciting to step forward into the garden of my future, very exciting, and in the spirit of the yin-yang symbol, which permeates tai chi practice, both of these are true, and one could not be true without the other.
Stories we hear growing up can really linger in the mind. Yesterday I told my father on the phone that Jeff and I are looking forward to the occasional rendezvous in Chicago while I am in Iowa.
“Chicago!” he shuddered. “Don’t go there.”
“It’s too dangerous,” he said. “Gangsters.”
As my father’s mind continues its bumpy downward slope, I’m not surprised to hear such things. He was born in 1932, a time when “Chicago” and “gangster” formed an easy association.
“I think Chicago is okay,” I said, wanting to reassure him. “I think it’s like New York, there’s less crime than there used to be.”
“Hmm,” he said. He sounded doubtful. I changed the subject.
I am excited to visit the art museum with my husband, to hear the Symphony, to walk along the lake. But then I started thinking. What if my dad is right? His considerable wisdom continues to surprise me, arriving in unexpected, luminous bursts, not yet extinguished by the graying of his fading brain. While writing this post, I Googled “Chicago,” and at the top of the scroll was this headline: “Forty-five people were shot over Easter weekend in Chicago.” Most of this violence was gang-related: the new gangsters.
So my father is awake. Maybe he knows more than I think he does about the state of the world. Is this one of his wise flashes?
I think it is as safe to visit Chicago as any other major American city. I anticipate with pleasure and curiosity, not with fear, the discovery of a vibrant city. I choose to shed my father’s protective cloak of fear as often as I can.
And yet. And yet, a parent who still, no matter what our ages, worries about his son traveling so far from home, so far from his care: what could make more sense than that?
I read about your idea of getting the United States government to pass a bill outlawing the presence of gay men in the National Football League. I’m curious why this is so important to you. You state that your motive behind the bill is that America is “losing its decency as a nation.” In this view, you are not alone. In all fifty states, indeed throughout the world, there are people who see the recent and continuing progress in LGBTQ equality and same-sex marriage rights as a threat to society. Something is indeed threatened, but I suggest that it is not what you think it is.
The increased freedom and acceptance of gay people threatens you because you are afraid. You aren’t afraid of gay men—why should you be, since gay men have no interest or intention to hurt you—and your fear has nothing to do with the Bible, or the sanctity of children, or your feelings about anal sex. You are afraid because you, and many men like you, have allowed your identity to be constructed around the singular fact that you are not gay.
Your masculinity is a fragile, hollow shell, a mask so brittle, so vulnerable, that the mere idea of gay sexuality requires a fit of outrage to cover up your deep fear. And what exactly is this fear?
It is this: that you, Jack, might be less than a man. If you were to truly feel the shame behind this thought, you would collapse.
Your idea of maleness has become calcified around what a man “is” or “is not,” what a man “does” or “doesn’t do.” For instance, in your view, a man is the one who penetrates, and is never penetrated.
But now, all around you, there are signs of gay people finding acceptance—from others, and, most crucially, from themselves. And because of your tribal mentality, where for every winner there must be a loser, you are freaking out. All these gay wins! Does this mean you are a loser?
I myself do not believe you are a loser. I think that you are lost, which is not the same thing, and that you are seriously out of touch with your deepest nature, which is love. And because you have so much fear in you, and because I myself know what it is like to feel afraid—try growing up gay if you want to know fear—I cannot hate you. You and I are both men who have known fear. I will fight against all your attempts to demean my existence as a person and a citizen, but today what I am feeling most of all for you, Jack, is compassion. There is a place in my heart for all living creatures, and that includes you. True, it is a small place—I can’t deny that you really annoy me and piss me off—but it is there.
And that place of compassion is there because, having been hated by so many, I do not like the way hate feels in my body. When I hate someone, I give my power to them, I make them more important than myself. Is that really what you want to do: make gay men more important to you than yourself?
I also read that you have a gay brother, who is not a fan of your politics. I can’t blame him. I hope, for both your sakes, that you and he find a way to reconcile and appreciate the beauty and value in each of you.
My final message is this: the day you understand that your identity as a strong and worthwhile man is not threatened by the existence by gay men living and loving openly, you will be freer, and happier, than you can possibly imagine today. And I want that for you. I want it for everyone. Thanks to the struggles and courage of so many, including myself, I can savor that freedom and happiness myself today, and let me tell you, it is awesome.