Monthly Archives: September 2008

Going With the Floe

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This weekend is, or has been, the equinox. I usually love the equinox. My old circle had a wonderful group journey we took every Spring and Fall, because the balance of the seasons enabled us to go farther along this one road between the worlds than we were normally able to. I savored the feeling of suspension, each moment hanging in time between the dimming and brightening of the world. For once, the constant tilting of things paused and I could feel my being settling into a deeper balance.

Apparently, now the equinox just pisses me off. Last Spring I had several good friends over to my house for a “Day of Hideous Balance” brunch. It was just the right mix of sacred and profane to take the edge off the holiday for me—and no, I don’t believe we had either in any sort of balance. We just seemed to veer from one to the other, accompanied by excellent food and plenty of champagne. No tally was taken of our final mix, but everyone made it home safely. That is my idea of a well-observed holiday.

This time around, it was a very different matter. The entire week leading up to the equinox was unbelievably strange, what with the economy collapsing and so very many men I know going full retard and staying there. On Friday I went into the video store with the intention of renting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, since my son Bowen is now off to Bolivia. I emerged with a bag containing seven DVDs, in the kind of determined trance that can only mean I am in desperate need of a weekend off.

Fortunately that was just the sort of weekend Jojo was looking for too. So we stayed in, ate badly, watched copious amounts of television, and caught up on at least a week’s worth of sleep. I have to say, it was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend.

Monday will start up with more news headlines, and more accounts of unbelievably stupid behavior. We will all be faced with more moments when we can neither speed things up nor slow them down to suit us. And yet we will get up, do what we can do, and try not to lose sleep over the rest.

This is not a balanced world. Sometimes the best way to meet that challenge is to be the balance the rest of the world lacks. Other times, it is good to remember that it can be somebody else’s watch, and the only thing required of us is to slow way down, endure, and watch as many episodes of Sex and the City as is humanly possible.

The Lure of Curiosity

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In aikido, there is a move called irimi nage in which our opponent strikes, and with a generous sweep of the arm we invite the attacker to sail right by us, losing balance and falling harmlessly to the ground. There is very little physical contact necessary in this move, just the ability to position ourselves correctly and trace in the air the movement of a door opening. If all goes well, our opponent is helpless to resist rushing through this energetic doorway, and the attack is over before it begins.

Irimi nage is known as the “20-year technique.” Underneath its elegant and powerful form is a complex series of movements, each of which must be trained into our bodies over a long period of time. We start by making very large movements, stepping behind our partner and pivoting 360º, drawing a wide sweeping arc with one arm and eventually stepping in to complete the throw. I have also seen irimi nage done beautifully by my teachers with nothing more than a slight shift of the feet and a raised forearm.

To Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, irimi nage was the physical expression of a fundamental spiritual principle. In the Shinto myth of Amaterasu the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu retreats into a cave, withdrawing the sun’s radiance from the world. After repeated attempts to force and cajole her out have failed, Amaterasu hears loud cheering and laughter just outside the cave entrance. At first she is angry that the Gods are having fun when they should be mourning her absence. As the noise continues, however, she begins to wonder just what is going on.

Finally, she can bear her curiosity no longer. She moves the boulder blocking the cave entrance just enough to peer through a tiny crack. But that crack allows a beam of brilliant sunlight to escape the cave, and it is reflected back to her from a tiny mirror hanging from a tree branch just outside. Amaterasu beholds the truth of her own beauty, and is moved by self-love to emerge and restore harmony to the worlds.

In irimi nage, Ueshiba taught, the attacker is also led by curiosity to step through the door, and thus harmony is restored and there is no conflict. With this understanding, we have the opportunity to re-enact the myth of Amaterasu every time we do irimi nage.

This teaching about the power of curiosity resonates deeply with me, and has led me to think more about all the ways we initiate, or try to initiate, change. In politics, especially activist politics, the go-to approach is to get people excited. If we become emotionally aroused, incensed, inspired, impatient, furious, or ecstatic, we can be moved to action, preferably behind a charismatic leader who can tell us which way to march, or where to sit down for maximum effect.

But what kind of change does that really produce in the individual? For me, social movements can be hugely inspiring in the moment, but once the crowd thins out and the rented megaphones are returned, I’m right back where I started from. No lasting transformation has taken place, I have just been on a nice ride with my friends, and have another story to tell. We all still agree that we are against bad things and in favor of good things. Our positions have not changed, nor has our thinking.

The things that truly change me, on a lasting basis, are those which engage my curiosity. And here is another secret to the effectiveness of irimi nage: our first move is to enter deeply behind our attacker, turning to face the way he is facing. Essentially, we begin by blending with him. We have not said he is right and we are wrong, we haven’t given up our center, our balance, or our ability to carry out the technique. In essence, we have disarmed our opponent by doing something unexpected, that he almost agrees with, and his curiosity about this is the force which neutralizes his own attack.

It is subtle, persuasive, infinitely complex. When it goes well, the feeling of being inside the technique as it unfolds is exhilarating and deeply satisfying. But then, so is lasting change.

One From the Archives

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It seems like one of those years when everyone is having babies. The net effect of this on me is having more opportunities to smile at cute little babies, after which I get to walk away. With my youngest now approaching the ripe old age of 16, I have the luxury of viewing from a comfortable distance a completely new generation of parents and children. In case you can’t tell, I very much like my new position on the sidelines of the childraising Olympics.

It was when I had very little children that I first noticed how much I needed to write. It was an urge I simply could not ignore, and when I felt it coming on I knew that no matter what else was happening, I needed to create an hour or two alone with my notebook or journal. In retrospect, it all makes sense and I am extremely grateful that I continued to practice the craft of writing, even when I didn’t have time to write.

Some of these pieces ended up being published in the old Reclaiming Newsletter, but most are not available in the Reclaiming web archives. That is a shame, because I am genuinely fond of some of them, even now. So just for fun I decided to reprint one of them here, which I wrote back in 1988. This was when I had a 2-year-old and an infant and still lived in San Francisco, at the center of my community. That made for some great parties, and at my 26th birthday party I received a copy of Luisah Teish’s book Jambalaya, then just out in paperback.

I have the utmost respect for Teish, and have worked with her some but not enough over the years, but I still worry that she found my article unfunny. On the other hand I certainly enjoyed writing it, and I think it might still have something to offer all those new mothers out there, even twenty years later.

Life Among the Little People

(c) 1988, Anne Hill

Some friends of mine who must think I have time to read gave me Luisah Teish’s book Jambalaya for my birthday.  I have tried to uphold their opinion of me by reading the book in my occasional spare moments, and what I have read so far has been quite thought-provoking.

I am particularly moved by Teish’s work with ancestors, and the many rituals she describes for becoming more closely attuned to the spirit world.  As a mother, these practices seem especially relevant to me, because my responsibility lies in raising the next generation and working for a decent world for them to live in.  My kids will need all the help their ancestors can give them.

The problem that always strikes me, however, when I read beautiful descriptions of feasting the dead, of water gazing at your altar, or treating yourself to herbal baths, is WHEN?  It is all I can do some days to find time to feed myself, let alone make something my ancestors won’t feel offended by. (Hey Nana, how about boxed macaroni and cheese today?  With or without canned tomato soup?)  And if I had time to water gaze I’d also have time to go visit my one surviving grandmother who is very ill.  When it comes down to choosing between caring for the living or communicating with the dead, my choice is clear.

Still, as I say, I was inspired by Teish’s words and struck by the importance of her work, so I have devised six simple rituals that can be incorporated into even the busiest of schedules.  These may be especially useful to women with small children hanging all over them.

1. Diaper Meditation.  When changing a particularly messy diaper, mutter under your breath a word of thanks that your child has inherited a healthy digestive system.  Try to recall which relative it was that grew up on a farm and whose genes have blessed your child with such prodigious poops.  Finally, take a moment to consider that in those days, women washed diapers like these by hand, so thank the spirits that today there are washing machines for such chores.

2. Juice and Cracker Feast.  Familiar to every mother are the times throughout the day when you seat your progeny at the table for a snack.  Such times are valuable not only nutritionally, but strategically, since most fights will be forgotten when food is suggested.  Set out an extra plate of crackers, cheese, carrot slices or whatever you are serving, along with something to drink, and put it on top of the fridge.  (Refrigerator tops are typically utilized as altars for this type of thing, since the kids can’t reach that high.)

Other things you can add to this altar are flowers your children pick for you, toys they were fighting with (to cleanse them of combative energy), and broken things that maybe the ancestors know how to fix.

3. Dishwater gazing.  When I am sick of reading books to kids, arbitrating disputes and tying shoelaces, I retreat to the safe haven of the kitchen sink.  Regardless of my mood or degree of receptivity, I always feel a link here to generations of women before me who kept a home and raised children.  Also, regardless of the time of day, there are always dishes to wash.  On filling the sink, I try to give silent thanks to the Hetch Hetchy Valley, and hope that one day it will return to its former state of beauty and wildness.

If your mother had a set washing routine like mine did—flatware, followed by glasses, dishes, and cookware—follow it, otherwise, you can borrow from any tradition that feels right to you.  Gaze into the suds, relax, and open up to the wisdom of Those Who Have Washed Before.

4. The 2am Feeding.  This is by far the most challenging of all the rituals included here, simply because there is NOTHING fun about having your sleep cycle interrupted every night. What I manage to do here is to fix my attention on keeping my jaws unclenched.

Remember that even your wisest, most right-on ancestor was once a small person who infuriated her/his mother by demanding to be fed at all hours of the night.  Try to send yourself back to sleep peacefully, perhaps by repeating something my foremothers always tell me at this hour: “Your child will not be a baby forever. Treasure this opportunity to receive instant commiseration and sympathy from everyone who hears about your child’s sleep habits.”

5.  The Ancestral Bubblebath.  Of course this does not mean a bath for you; you will be lucky to sneak in a shower every now and then when the kids are napping.  This is an opportunity to slip a bit of ‘Church’ into your unsuspecting child’s consciousness during bathtime.

On preparation, spend a bit of time at the store choosing an appropriate bubble medium.  Ideal would be one that smells like a flower native to your ancestral homeland, but be practical.  If bathtime is a problem in your household, go for what works, and that means packaging.  My son is satisfied with some stuff that comes in a blue plastic elephant-shaped jug.

During the bath, your ancestors will have some ideas on where and how vigorously this kid needs to be scrubbed.  In fact, many women experience spiritual ‘possession’ during this ritual, and become like their foremothers, who got their children mercilessly clean every Saturday.  If you are uncomfortable with this type of thing, consult your local priestess for counseling, or better yet, entrust your partner with the sacred responsibility of keeping the kids clean.

6.  The Family Dinner.  This is perhaps the most formidable of all rituals of ancestor reverence.  Whether you realize it or not, your forebears are checking you out now to see just how good you are at disciplining their descendants.  Some spirits are less tactful than others, however, so you must take precautions to both hear what they are saying, and divest yourself of any guilt that they send your way.

My ancestors can be quite opinionated about how my children act at the table, so I have devised the following procedure which works quite nicely.  Prepare a generous serving of the dinner you cooked and place it on your refrigerator top altar.  Light a candle before the meal and courteously invite all those great aunts and grandmothers in to partake of your offering.  Seat your kids at the kitchen table with their food, and give them strict instructions as to how you expect them to behave.  Then take your dinner out of the kitchen and don’t look back!  Sit down to eat in another room and relax, knowing your children’s upbringing is in good hands.  After the meal, reenter the kitchen, thank the spirits, snuff out the candle, and tell your partner it is time for the kids to take a bath.

These are only a few of the many ways in which you, a busy mother, can live your spiritual beliefs and not feel overwhelmed by the task.  Be creative in your application of the principles of ancestor reverence, and don’t be discouraged if your experiments backfire at first.  Have patience with yourself, your children, and your oftentimes finicky ancestors.

Above all, if you do get fed up with the whole process, please do not send your ancestors over to my house.  I have enough to deal with.