wet earth

I Like My Food

Click here to listen to an audio version of this post.

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There are similarities between eating and masturbating. To eat is an act I take with my body. I use my hands. Eating may be a source of pleasure, and also of shame. I may do it by myself, or in a circle with others. It may be slow and sensual, something to savor, or it may be rote, a rush to the finish line. The clean plate, the empty bowl. Wipe myself with a napkin and voilà, done.

But eating is also like sex with a partner. When I eat, with each bite I choose to put something into my body that wasn’t there before. I insert, I receive. I swallow.

This month I celebrate eleven years of food sobriety. To be sober of something generally suggests abstinence, but sobriety can also mean behavior that is moderate, temperate. As a younger man, I prided myself on being someone who could eat absolutely anything that was put in front of me, and drink as much as I liked (and perhaps more). Around the age of forty, however, I started suffering from crushing headaches. These headaches, called cluster headaches, also nicknamed “suicide headaches,” were so debilitating I often spent days in bed honestly wanting to die. My headaches resisted most medication; nevertheless, I swallowed all manner of pills and waited for the pain to pass. The pills had their own unpleasant side effects. The truth was, I was miserable most of the time.

One day, in the exhausted wake of one of these periods of headache, I pulled from the bookshelf A Spoonful of Ginger, a cookbook I’d bought at a tasting event and reading in Washington DC several years before. This book, by Nina Simonds, was my first introduction to the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a field of knowledge and practice that would eventually lead me to pursue acupuncture and to study Tai Chi and Qigong. But first there was the question of my diet. As an experiment, I decided to eliminate some types of food and focus more on other ingredients and dishes.

Four months later, I hadn’t had a single headache. (Also, I lost thirty pounds.)

I won’t dwell on what I did or did not eat; food choices are deeply personal, as well as cultural, the details, as with masturbation, best left, perhaps, to the realm of privacy. What worked for me might, or might not, work for anyone else. I have zero desire to convince anyone of anything concerning their diet. But here’s the thing: over the past few years, as more and more people experiment with eating wheat-free, or dairy-free, or paleo or vegan or what have you, there has also been a backlash of people commenting on how absurd these “fads” are, and mocking anyone who chooses to buy a gluten-free bagel, or whatever. Does this sound familiar? Someone is making a choice about what to do with her body, and someone else is pointing a finger. Oh, how good we are at judgment. “I know what’s best for your body!”

As a person whose sexuality has been the subject of scrutiny, criticism and attack all my life, I have this to say: my body choices are my own. I understand there are many of us with strong, valid opinions about meat and factory farming and the environment, for example. I think it makes sense to educate people about major ethical issues, but for me, the bottom line is that if you don’t like the idea of human beings eating meat, then don’t eat meat. If you think gluten-free food is stupid, then don’t eat gluten-free food. If you think gay sex is disgusting, then don’t have gay sex. I’ll enjoy my body my way, and how about you do the same? I am done with the New Yorker cartoons, the Internet mockery, the Facebook posts castigating people’s dietary decisions. What these remarkably put-out people seem compelled to declare is that someone else’s woo-woo self-indulgent dietary ridiculousness has gone too far! Have a cheeseburger and shut up, already!

Well. There are days I truly wish I could have what you’re having, but if I do, I am likely to pay the price in several days of feeling really shitty. Sometimes, it works out to have a bite of this, a nibble of that, but for the most part, I find that sticking to what I learned about my body eleven years ago serves me well, most of the time. So consider this a request to please remember that someone experimenting with a new diet may be seeking relief from some terrible pain I hope you never experience.

It would have been nice to celebrate my ten years of food sobriety a year ago, but in November 2016 I was in no mood for celebration of any kind. The day after Trump was elected President, a painful sore emerged on my back. It eventually grew into what my dermatologist diagnosed as “a large and angry cyst,” so large I was unable to lie on my back for over a week. Three days after the election, I had to leave a solidarity gathering at a friend’s house because I suddenly felt ill; I spent the night vomiting. The horror of Trump had made me literally sick to my stomach. My body is an exquisitely faithful barometer of my feelings.

The food we eat, the air we breathe, the thoughts we have, the company we keep, all become integrated, for better or for worse, into our bodies, and thus become part of who we are. I’m writing about my experience here because I want to speak out against the food shaming and snark around alternative diets. It’s just too reminiscent for me of sexual shame and judgment, of people feeling entitled to comment on the body choices of others, and it’s time for it to stop.
 

Wet Earth

Click here to listen to an audio podcast of this post.

***

I was at the high cliffs overlooking La Selva Beach. It was a Saturday afternoon in September, after Tai Chi training. Not far from the shore, pods of migrating whales were on the move. They breached, they spouted, they breathed in and out of their extravagant whale bodies. Great plumes of spray rose into the air, drawing attention to the swimming shadows just under the surface. Warm, wanton sunlight fell all around.

I was on the move, too. I felt unsettled and confused. Unlike the whales, I did not have a clear destination. I paced back and forth beside the eucalyptus trees, then decided to call a friend.

The friend on the other end of the phone was in Iowa City, where I recently spent three years in the embrace of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a literary community of a richness and depth perhaps unparalleled anywhere else. In Iowa City, I studied with wise and supportive mentors, learned from gifted and generous peers, taught classes of committed and fabulously creative students, and made lasting friendships rooted as much in a shared passion for writing as in the everyday pleasures of company and conversation. I had discovered how valuable such a community can be for a writer who likes to work alone. I had made a better acquaintance with my writing self. So the sun could shine and the whales could spout all they liked: my return from Iowa to California was proving to be far more disorienting than I had prepared myself for. I found myself wondering if I still belonged here. As my husband and I worked through the changes that accompanied my return, I noticed myself looking at California’s natural beauty slightly askance, with an uncertain, almost mystified gaze. Where am I?

The air was malty, sun-warmed, slightly spicy: mellow earth, dried eucalyptus leaves, a touch of brine. There were the dried blossoms of sage plants, their aroma tangy-sweet, as if the earth were a body giving off the seductively musky odor of sweat. Pungent beach sand spread below the soft cliffs, miles of pulverized rock, smoothed by seawater and time, whitened by sunlight.

They all slipped under my skin, each one. I was powerless. The earth and sand, the leaves, the water, the air, each with its scent. Despite myself, my resistance to the present moment began to give way. But give way to what? In her beautiful and immensely helpful book Step into Nature, Patrice Vecchione asks, “Is part of the job of our senses to help us identify what’s ours, to whom and what we belong?”

If I root myself once more in California, must I cease to be the person I became in Iowa?

As a boy living at the end of a curving road in Topanga Canyon, I loved to walk up the little sloping street immediately after a heavy rain. Named for the black walnut trees—las nueces—which grew wild there, one towering above a fence in our backyard, Nuez Way overlooked the long canyon as well as Topanga Creek, which flowed to the Pacific. After the rain, the creek would be muddy and swollen and swift and you could hear its tumbling roar from the road. The abundant grasses and trees were drenched with clear clean water. The air touched your skin with damp coolness and it smelled of wet earth. The scent, for me, of memory.

This post marks my return to blogging after three years away in Iowa. The blog’s former name, Arts Alive, was inspired by a determination to encourage and participate in a wider conversation about the arts on the Monterey Peninsula at a time when the local daily newspaper was slashing its arts coverage. Although I’ve renamed the blog, you can still read those old posts, about string quartets and Harold Pinter, about Pina Bausch in 3-D and writing music about the death of a child. You can also read my open letter to the man who wanted to propose a bill outlawing the presence of gay men in the National Football League.

The blog’s new title reflects my need to write from the inner world I came to know and trust more intimately in Iowa. It is a world penetrated by scent and sensation, a place that is dense with memory and imagination and ambition and desire and an innocent childlike curiosity I guard with my life.

I said goodbye to my friend in Iowa City, grateful for the call, slipped my phone in my pocket, then stared out at the whales. I thought of the long distances they travel, the ones that survive, year after year. I stopped my pacing and gave myself permission to experience the weight of my feet on the ground. Yes, as I inhaled the familiar coastal flavors I felt the quality of belonging that had eluded me. Bonded by molecules of scent, it crossed over my resistance and became part of my body. It was my belonging to California, to its coast, to the blessed life and the love I have here. As I felt myself letting go there was relief, as well as some regret.

And I wonder if there is a deeper belonging that I carry with me wherever I may travel, one that is not dependent on my history or my hunger. Perhaps it is possible to stand in an unknown place, a place of not knowing, and not be a stranger to myself. In wet earth, there is promise and potential, dark, unbound, alive. It is always a new time.

 

Last Tai Chi Class

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.

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