I’m no prude, and yet, I have not written a single word about sex on this health and wellness blog. Last week a friend shared a powerful TedTalk by Peggy Orenstein called “What Young Women Believe about Their Own Sexual Pleasure,” which alerted me to my oversight. After I watched it, I thought that if women like me don’t talk about sex, then my nieces and nephews are doomed. It warrants examination, this omission. Somehow sex has become the dirtiest three-letter word in the English lexicon, but we can clean it up. Here’s why we need to apply ourselves to this task. The prevalent avoidance of discussing the topic of sex can be linked to numerous societal dysfunctions:
Sexual assault and rape
Blatant ignorance about our anatomies and procreative capacities
Vagina shaming and mutilation
Phew, that’s a lot—too much if you really stop to think about it. These concerns impact everyone on the gender spectrum. If biological women can’t own their bodies and feminine identities, then those transgressive figures, who are adopting femininity will inherit those problems even as they seek the health and healing that that kind of transformation represents. It also means that men can’t be comfortable with women’s bodies, because we aren’t teaching men about the healthy boundaries we need to co-exist in a pluralistic society. The taboos against sex limit our understanding of our beautiful bodies.
The vagina is sacred and holy by design, housed and protected by vulva, legs and arms. Women are meant to open and bloom like flowers for our chosen beloved. And yet, too many women carry fear, where life and pleasure should prevail, judgment-free. Sex is meant to be a beautiful invitation, a dynamic and transcendent connection between consenting adults seeking mutual happiness. Let’s claim that right this century.
I think we can live up to the expectations of biology. Both men and women have pleasure buttons that can be activated by loving touch. Let’s aim for joy, pleasure and the power of reciprocity in the context of sexual intimacy. Let’s discuss this with our sons and daughters, so we don’t have to spend all our time repairing the damages of rape and sexual violations that surround too many sexual encounters. We can reclaim the sacred space of human dignity intended for sexual intimacy. Oh, and, can we say the V word, please? It’s really okay that boys have penises and girls have vaginas. That’s how God made us. This is a beautiful thing.
We can heal our society and ourselves by taking inventory of our sexual beliefs, examining them openly and moving forward bravely into a sexuality where women own their vaginas and men own their penises and each takes on the full privileges and responsibilities for what happens with and in them. That’s a revolution in which this Third-World Feminist is willing to enlist.
I went to a class called Taming Anxiety to deal with the residual feelings of being threatened, anxious, withdrawn. Fear still resonates at a very high frequency in my body. I am filled with debilitating self-judgments. I am searching for community. I have come to listen to my body and my emotions. I have come to follow my breath.
Some years ago, ordinary nervousness grew into full-blown anxiety attacks: increased heart rate, tense muscles, cold sweat, nausea and the urge to scream gripped me every morning. My body provided clear reasons and visible signs, the type that even the doctor could not dismiss. I no longer wanted to leave the house.
“May I be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.”~The Four Divine Abodes
Sometimes people interpret symptoms of anxiety as a heart attack. I perceived it as insanity. I could not trust my body to stay dry after getting dressed. My perspiration was activated with proximity to school and the classroom. Where once my formerly steel resolve and confidence were paramount, encountering the violence of colleagues unnerved me completely. I was not only falling apart, I was imploding, feasting on my own nervous system. There was no peace to be found in or around me.
I would rather define self as the interiorization of community. And if you make that little move, then you’re going to feel very different about things. If the self were defined as the interiorization of community, then the boundaries between me and another would be much less sure.
Through a Buddhist lens, the loss of balance has overwhelmed me. Using this frame, there is a connection between the mind, experiences and society. In this context, heart and mind are the same.
“May I be filled with loving kindness.” ~ The Four Divine Abodes
My falling apart was not gradual but exponential. Trembling became customary. For a time, I could not drive. My eyes averted from those of passersby. My hair thinned as I looked in the mirror. My beautiful complexion lost its shine, morphing into a waxy and irritated skin. I attempted to hide so that no one would see me dissolving. Isolation was the only safe place. The violence of my professional life eroded my joy.
The more recent manifestation of my anxiety is milder, habitual, unfounded.
Rev. Keiryu Liên Shutt gives us a Koan, a question repeated verbatim to a respondent, who answers each time. Rev. Liên insists that we ask it again and again. The Koan works. It leads me back to myself, to the limitations I have imposed on myself by following my thoughts out of the present moment. The Koan challenges the beliefs that I’ve held for some time, that I am responsible for my expulsion from the academy. I have constructed a narrative that serves to form my diseased state, and results in a burden I carry, alone, in silence.
I think we are indebted to history—and not just familial history, but cultural history, political history and economic history—for our understanding of ourselves.
How does my anxiety limit my happiness?
While I perform zazen, concentrating on my breath, I feel myself moving around inside my skin like a small animal in a burrow. Once in a while I will sniff the air at the opening to see if I am safe.
“May I accept myself just as I am.” ~ The Four Divine Abodes
After a time, the Koan makes me laugh. It is as funny as the absurd games I play on myself. It becomes clear to me: Anxiety has pushed me out from the unsafe world into a space I have cultivated with compassion and care. This new place is good for me though I am slow to adapt. The tools I need for my serenity are provided by my anxiety, a sounding board in my body, leading me to a world where I can breathe without hyperventilating, without erupting in stress-inducing illnesses.
“May I be peaceful and at ease.” ~The Four Divine Abodes
I only have to learn the signs and see the pattern to understand the hot burning is not healthy. My anxiety has liberated me from the bondage of suffering, given me the courage to confront my reality. I would never have willingly walked away from my livelihood. I was too fearful to face the consequences without a strong push.
The tools offered by psychiatry are intended to attack the symptoms of emotional suffering, not to promote emotional flourishing. Other emotions do not destroy equilibrium or the sense of well-being as soon as they arise, but in fact enhance it—so they would be called constructive.
How is my anxiety valuable to me?
It’s so easy to internalize dysfunction, to own and embody a condition that reduces our sense of self to ourselves and within our communities; it limits our ability to navigate in the world. We are less comfortable with looking at the external forces that play a role in our well-being or lack of it.
“May I have inner and outer safety.” ~The Four Divine Abodes
The myth of happiness is woven into the American consciousness. This ideal has not been designed for women and people of color, yet we allow the myth to enter our framework of self-identity and suffer for the shortcomings of that comparison. Until we learn to see ourselves as products of an oppressive society, individuals, who are ill equipped to bear the weight of these burdens, we must carry the imbalances that arise from the pervasive oppression under which we toil.
“May I hold my pain with mercy.” ~The Four Divine Abodes
There is a demand, an artificial one, that insists that we show up in society at 100% at all times. The sense that we cannot fluctuate from that norm is pervasive. With my students, a deep sense of failure was often articulated over an inability to master a technique that is only being tried for the first time. My answer was always that Doing one’s best on any given day is not the same as being perfect, operating at one hundred percent every day of our lives. That impossible goal is overdue for demystification. Aiming at that kind of perfection is not only impossible, it is also detrimental to our health and the health of our communities. It’s a myth that insists we show up as something other than our real selves. It is a myth that perpetuates anxiety, guilt and shame over our true selves rather than fostering a foundation of compassion wherein we can strive and grow into our evolving selves. It is a myth that breeds fear and isolation, components of anxiety.
“May I be undisturbed by the coming and goings of situations.”~ The Four Divine Abodes
The anxiety I feel is useful as a warning system, reminding me to stay in community—to seek it out if necessary. My anxiety pushes me to get help and to find the courage to move beyond the limits of my emotions and to examine the root causes of my dis-ease.
At the height of its grip on me, my anxiety was activated by the unhealthy racial climate at work, which was established over many years, designed to alienate me, and anyone who looks like me, consistently and strategically in overt and covert ways. The absence of friendliness and kindness took their toll on me. After ten years of absorbing toxicity from those in power, my body and my mind worked together to awaken me from my torpor. I could not ignore my anxiety if I meant to survive.
“May I hold my joys and sorrows with equanimity.” ~ The Four Divine Abodes
Ten years is long time to not belong. I had to get over the shame of not succeeding in an environment that never wanted me. Next, I named the climate that actively dehumanized me and treated me as inferior, made me feel out of place in the academy. I abandoned my systematic willingness to enter the war zone, crossing boundaries littered with landmines, peopled with hostile agents, looking for my happiness. I relearned compassion for myself and my oppressors.
“May your happiness increase and never leave you.” ~The Four Divine Abodes
I can see that during the entire episode, my anxiety guided me toward safety. My anxiety acted as a warning system, alerting me to the changes needed to ensure my well-being and happiness. I may not have caused my anxiety, but I am responsible for the state of my life. With this awareness, I’ve set new intentions to listen to my emotions with a heartmind toward Justice, Peace and Healing, and to foster the conditions under which I thrive. I don’t want to dwell in negative emotions, but I do need to investigate them and use them as catalysts to avoid self-harm, because I am fully aware that I am worthy of love and compassion. Three and half years ago, when I had my first anxiety attack, I never imagined I’d be on friendly terms with this emotion. Now I see anxiety as my friend and teacher.
The messages of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela remain relevant even in a world where ideological confrontations and invasive totalitarianism have been overcome. They are messages of hope, of faith in a society’s ability to overcome conflict through mutual understanding and watchful patience. To achieve this, we must rely on our belief in human rights, the violation of which—whoever the perpetrators may be—must provoke our indignation. We must never surrender these rights. ~Stéphane Hessel
I wonder whether it is enough for me to do my work, to write my story, to create my art. I can no longer take liberty for granted, if ever I had. I have the urgency to stay awake, and yet, I also feel a tremendous responsibility to foster peace in the world, in my heart, in my home. The more I am afraid of the future, the more I cling to my sense of purpose, the calling in my life and to caring for myself, and others, with compassion, serenity and love.
It is easier to deal with the external manifestations of racism and sexism than it is to deal with the results of those distortions internalized within our consciousness of ourselves and one another.*
We must not permit our backs to be pressed against a wall, dogs to run us down like fugitives, or bars to close in around our hearts. If we are free, then no one can take that. And, we must believe that we are free—we have to know it. We have to own our freedom and live accordingly.
I say, keep your peace. Make room for your joy. Make sure that when the storm passes, your house is standing.
I believe I do not have to burn things to be part of a revolution —though I honor and recognize that those who must burn structures, effigies and ideals are necessary to the cycle of change.
I am writing about an anger so huge and implacable so corrosive, it must destroy what it most needs for its own solution, dissolution, resolution.*
I tend my garden, write like a mad woman, connect with my people, cry into my pillow, sculpt my ancestors, sand the teak table that has stood out in the blessed rain all this long winter. I do these things, and I watch, as Hessel prescribes, with a patience that is steeped in long-suffering and the alertness of a new season.
In our struggle for justice, peace and equity, we owe it to ourselves to nurture love, self-care and harmony. These are critical responsibilities for liberation workers.
We all have a part to play in how our world operates. The interconnectivity of our lives can no longer be ignored. Beloved, justice-loving President John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Now, more than ever, this question is pertinent in its application to service in this country, and also to the required work in our cities, families and extended communities. Perhaps we need to expand the definition of poison, broaden the scope to encompass of how actions that intend to harm one group inevitably undermines all of us, since we share the same ecosystems.
When Regan took office, he implemented all manner of racists policies as a backlash to the reforms of the 1970s—the product of much bloodshed and activism during the mass Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s—he wanted a return to the past, to once again disenfranchise black Americans, who were at last prospering with gainful employment, access to the ballot and a legislated end to centuries of legal discrimination. So the 80s became the decade for undoing the gains of previous decade, by first closing the factories that employed thousands of workers all over the country, but especially in the motor cities of the mid-west, where many blacks had migrated the century before. Other manufacturers shuttered plants as well, lining their pockets and resting their large heads on soft pillows in the great old US of A, while keeping their portly purses well out of reach of Uncle Sam. Combined that with the simultaneous economically devastating white flight from urban cities and the strategic divestment in the remaining communities, and America’s working class was dealt a mortal deathblow.
Just as many whites as blacks lost jobs to the factory closings. The lose of tax revenue from those who left the cities, dwindled, and then, those who could, packed their bags and left. But it seems that now the desolation of a targeted group of people has inexplicably, at long last, trickled down to the rural areas of Virginia and runs amok in the woods of Pennsylvania, where the toxic stream meanders through the land and fords the vast wildernesses where once stood the fabled factory of the well-paying job for the undereducated. And just like that, it becomes woefully apparent, that though poison will at first killed the intended undesirable fish in the immediate vicinity, it will, before long, also kill the frogs in distant ponds as it runs it course.
Take the clever example offered in the movie There will be Blood when oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, takes his straw and says to his nemesis, “I drink your milk,” he clarifies that the oil beneath the ground does not honor property boundaries; the milk, of course, is a metaphor for the oil in the earth, the same collective resource of all those who inhabit the land, sustenance that may as well be any resource from housing, to jobs, to healthy food, to lead-free water.
Your consent is unnecessary.
Similarly ironic, when decades of fracking leads to earthquakes in places like Oklahoma that had never before been susceptible to the shifting of tectonic plates, it give pause—to some. Or, when oil pipelines that have long mapped over Native lands like arteries outside an ailing body leak oil into formerly pristine waterways, we see that it’s only a matter of time before what we have done unto others gets done to us:
Pillage the forests; get land erosion and warmer climes.
Spray pesticides, and kill all the bees.
Undermine the livelihood of black American, and sow widespread unemployment.
We are all connected.
No one can escape the poison once it seeps into the land, the water and the air. We have to clean it all up, or we all perish. We don’t get to choose who lives or who dies. We must be the stewards of the land, and not solely the environmental aspects of our shared geographies, but of the people, especially, and the plants and animals that are sustained or destroyed by our daily choices, and our insatiable hungers. We must invest in each other, with our hearts, and be willing to extend that love to our brothers and sisters—no matter what skin tone, regardless of papers, beliefs, notwithstanding.
It is our responsibility to seek these reconciliations—each one of us. When we have done these things, all will be well.
There is nothing like art to wake us. Art has the power to get under the skin, splinter nails and moisten brows. Hang a urinal on the wall and get a rise (No pun intended). Draw a comic the Prophet and get blasted out of this life. Paint a portrait using multiple perspectives and challenge convention. Art is noise. Art is a thumb in the nose of static notions.
Art and revolution are long-time companions. Militant art directs movements by giving people motivational images, reflecting their thoughts and capturing possibilities: You could be her; this could be you. We need art to energize us. The United Farmworkers Union employed an iconic eagle as their emblem; the Black Panther Party and Mao’s China used art to manipulate, agitate and propagate a message (not necessary in that order).
It was Honoré Daumier, who in the late 18th century glorified the masses of the “Third-class Carriage” even while giving us a peek into the lifestyles of the first-class passengers. I relish neither classification, because poverty is the domain of those who do not own their destinies. Calling attention to disparities is the domain of artists. Take Goya’s criticisms of public figures through allegory and blatant representation of government atrocities, which led to public outrage. Likewise, satirical political cartoons have been the voice of dissent since the American Revolution.
Art also has unintentional consequences. Take the writer Nicolai Gogol, whose most famous, and nearly seditious work, Dead Souls, foreshadowed the fall of the monarchy and led to political strife when it was published in 1842. In fact, Gogol, a nobleman, believed in the crown and serfdom—he did not expect Dead Souls to be interpreted as criticism of the state. For Gogol, he was simply depicting Russian life. Ironically, he was unable to “correct” his book though he tried, twice, to create a second volume; in frustration, Gogol committed suicide by starvation, proving we cannot control Art.
Rebecca Solnit assures us that artists have a place, poets have a place—and protests have a place. Without art, she implies, we succumb to dichotic thinking, viewing the world and everything in it as binary opposites, rather than complicated, nuanced situations that we have the power to impact.
Art is no trivial matter. It is skillful, thoughtful, daring and courageous work that must be done. Whether imagery or words, film or created objects, performance or free association—these are the pillars of a thriving society. Art is not merely the purview of advertisers and marketers. Art belongs to us.
Medicine is not only what can be bought with a prescription. Medicine can be grown in a garden, found on the herb rack, and prepared in the average kitchen. After our national and unsuccessful war on drugs, (more than 55,000 people died in 2015 from accidental opiate overdoses many of which were prescribed drugs; that number is expected to be topped in 2016) it’s time to look into traditional forms of healing to soothe the pain.
Since I was a girl, my mother would stop along the street in New York City to show me plants growing out of the cracks in sidewalks, or springing up along hedges. My mother would tell me the names of the plants and how to use them. Her wisdom is increasingly useful to me as I find that Western medicine does not always work in the way we need, want or expect. Sometimes, a little help from Mother Nature’s pantry is needed. Here’s a recipe that has gotten us through the bitter winter colds in resilient health. Try it.
Winter’s Cold Brew
In a quart pan, combine the following ingredients in cold water:
Star Anise, 3-4 stars
Cinnamon, 1 stick
Jamaican Allspice, 10-15 pearls
Clove, 15-20 pins
Fresh Ginger, ¼ cup, thinly sliced
Heat the mixture under the lowest flame possible. It should take about an hour to boil. When the infusion is roiling, add 1-2 tablespoons of Echinacea let that boil for 8 more minutes (Okay to use 2 tea bags in lieu of fresh herbs). In an 8-ounce cup, add fresh lemon and honey. Strain the brew into the cup, and drink it as hot as possible. The various herbs and spices work to boost the immunity; many act as analgesics and astringents to soothe a sore throat, reduce and expectorate mucus and clear a stuffy head. You can drink as many cups a day as necessary to abate cold symptoms.