Samba Journal 2: Practice makes perfect

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The drummers haven’t been showing up. We dancers are ready. In small groups, we flock onto the improvised stage like proud birds, chassé! In position, we face our audience, our reflected images in the mirror- 5, 6, 7, 8: we advance on ourselves, knees higher, arms wider! Spine straight, chest full and proud, I am a vision!

Kick, ball, change, turn- oops! Not yet. I need to go over that part. Stay, knees bent, hand on hip, left hand winding up to the ceiling and down up down up down up reach reach reach reach tuuuuuuurn. Finally!

When the part is over, we twist off the stage, disappearing into the eves and into our ordinary selves.

 

 Know yourself

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I try to sit quietly and find myself. I imagine I am somewhere inside, buried beneath years of social survival. I am like a firefly nestled in the pocket of the haphazard patchwork dress of my life, the pieces sewed together to create planes and correct mistakes, no grand design guiding it.

There is something true about me. Whether I was born with this truth, or if it was forged over time I don’t know. I am trying to return to this truth, because it is awkward living stretched beyond it. I have learned to be loud in a loud world: I am not loud. I have learned to be aggressive: I find no joy in controlling another person. I push the walls of what is true to me. But flexibility without strength causes long-term damage. Instead of stretching beyond, I want to breath into what is essential, stoking the fire.

 

 

 

The Public Shaming of Racist People

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Social media. It connects me to old friends across the world. It gives me a platform where I can share the small triumphs of my day, and where I can be inspired by the humor, insight, and beauty of others, people who would be (and, I think, largely are) strangers otherwise. It is incredible that we now have a way to bypass the judgmental gatekeepers of “culture” in order to share and promote all of the cool things that we are doing.

But what about all of that not cool stuff? What about of all that shameful, violent, racist, and hateful behavior that it seems many people incorporate into their daily interactions? This month, a couple of people have viraly infected my social media accounts. And unlike Beyonce at Cochella, they are not celebrities, and they are not being celebrated. Far from it. They are being shamed.

The characters I am referring to have much in common. They are both white. They are both every-day citizens, previously unknown beyond the small circles of their day-to-day lives. They were both captured on video by other civilians, doing something that is indicative of the way racism plays out in this country. Both threaten to use the police as a way to enforce their racism. Both characters have been identified and linked to institutions and professions. And both are being being relentlessly, publicly shamed.

There are also differences between the two, and these differences address how we understand racism in this country. One of the characters, lets call him Loathsome Lawyer, had been caught on video on at least three prior occasions, yelling racist and xenophobic slurs at strangers. In the most recent video, he threatened to call ICE on a restaurant employee speaking Spanish to a customer in New York City. His bigotry is well documented and clearly stated with the words that come out of his own mouth. This sort of racism (overt, violent, individualistic, legal) is easily identified. It is what we often think about when we think of a “racist” person, and since the Lecherous Lawyer is so vitriolic in his hatred, he almost serves as a comfort: “Oh, I would never do something like that! That’s horrible! Racism is bad.” I don’t do that, therefore, I am not racist.

The other character, lets call her the Pestiferous Caller, called the police on a Black family having a barbecue in the park, and lurked around their site complaining about the kind of charcoal grill they were using. She is shown standing a few yards away from the barbecue with her phone to her ear, threatening the barbecuers with police action. She does not articulate her racist motivations, though the bystanders nearby do make those clear. Thus, her actions are somewhat up for interpretation. Maybe the barbecuers really weren’t supposed to be using charcoal. Maybe Pestiferous Caller just really hates the smell of smoke on her walk around the lake. In a different society, perhaps her actions could be understood as simple uncalled for bitchery and rule regulating. In the United States, though, a relentless history of systemic racism means that the unexamined actions of white people easily play into the gears that work to repress a substantial portion of the population because of the color of their skin. This is the sort of racism that white people are being called upon to confront in themselves, even though it may be very uncomfortable. This is the kind of racism that the Pestiferous Caller has become a much-needed symbol for.

 

Social media not only lets us communicate rapidly; it enables users to pass information in whatever form they want. In the Pestiferous Caller’s case, after her video went viral she was transported into unenviable immortality by becoming a popular meme illustrating the ways that white people police Black lives, often in deadly ways. Internet artists have pasted her image onto many famous Black scenes, including Martin Luther King’s speech at March on Washington, and Rockwell’s painting of Ruby Bridge’s brave walk to school. “I’d like to report a graduation” reads a meme of the Pestiferous Caller next to a picture of Chadwick Boseman speaking at Howard University. Her disapproving frown hovers over and behind scenes of Black success, Black camaraderie, Black joy. Pestiferous Caller has become a vivid illustration of the latent racism that even well-meaning white people use to maintain a status quo that they might not have even acknowledged. And this sort of racism destroys the lives (and barbecues) of people of color every single day.

In his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson writes that social media tools like Twitter were used very powerfully from the beginning as “the democratization of justice.” Voiceless people suddenly had the ability to expose the wrong-doing of the very powerful. Companies suffered from attacks when they misused their privilege. Wrongs were righted. Then the Twitter army started using its power against small timers as well. When a young PR executive with 170 Twitter followers tweeted, before boarding an 11-hour flight to South Africa, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m White!” Twitter turned against her, too. Her life was dismantled over the course of those 11 hours: when she turned on her phone, she found mockery, rape threats, and that she had lost her job.

For his book, Ronson spoke to many people who had gone through a similar experience. He worries that the ease and joy of publicly shaming strangers have led to ideologues prematurly winning over humanity. “Maybe instead of gleefully flaunting her privilege, she was mocking the gleeful flaunting of privilege,” he thought as he watched the woman’s life being torn apart before his eyes. But social media is such a swift force, there really isn’t any time for “maybe.” Maybe the Pestiferous Caller hates charcoal smoke. Maybe the Loathsome Lawyer was suffering some sort of mental break. It’s too late for those maybes to matter anymore: these characters have been called to justice, and justice will be served.

It is one thing to be called out for something you’ve done, even to be mocked. Perhaps just repercussions include termination from employers. That the mob of internet anger often turns to gleeful violent fantasies is worrisome and inappropriate. Maria Vargas Llosa recently said “If you fight terrorism with terrorism, than you are a terrorist.” I  want to live in a better world, and I know that we cannot do that through perpetuating threats of violence, even against people who have acted violently in the past.

The much needed conversation about public shaming will take place in the same space where the shame occurs, and only those who want to will engage. In this age of social media, of fast information and even faster judgement, we are all accountable for our actions. If we have become sloppy in the way we treated one another, if we casually rest upon the mistreatment of others, it is time to reexamine ourselves. If for no better reason than self-preservation: your dirty deeds might be caught, confronted, and life as you know it could easily become a mockery. It is ironic that these machines demand us to revisit our humanity, to measure ourselves against the constantly shifting tapestries of different ideologies. It is incredible that social media has so quickly done what nothing else did: to quickly and recognizably personify the ills that society so elusively dodges. This is an incredible tool, and at the moment it is still largely democratic. With humanity, responsibility, and action we can use social media to change the world (we already are). I truly hope that it is a peaceful revolution.

 

 

 

 

Reject me

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I don’t face a lot of rejection. Not because I’m so wonderful that everybody wants me; I don’t get rejected because I avoid any situation in which I might end up slighted. And we all know how that ends up: instead of going out there and pursuing my deepest desires, I end up walking in increasingly smaller circles, dodging hurt and disappointment by never risking anything new.

I’ve only ever asked one person out on a date; everyone else I’ve ever dated has chosen me. I accepted the first job I was offered after graduating from school, a job I wasn’t sure would be a good fit, just to avoid the stress of interviewing at other places I really liked. I’ve never been brave enough to be a musician: I couldn’t bear the idea of bearing my soul and not being received with adoration. The same goes for writing, though I am trying to address that. I have cultivated a proud and intimidating veneer to make it easy to reject strangers before they can reject me. The thing is, rejection really isn’t that bad. Why have I constructed my whole life around avoiding it? I’m overly invested in my precious self-image. I am not perfect, no way. But some part of me likes to maintain that I am, while the rest of me lazily protects it.

This has to stop. I am missing out. Today I’m going to begin 30 days of rejection. Every day I’ll put my desires out there, my hard work and my fragile self image, to be trampled by the big bad world! I’m strangely exhilarated by the prospect. I’ll start today by pitching an article I wrote to an online publication. Wish me luck, though in this case I don’t know if luck will bring me rejection or acceptance.

Writing is Hard

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The longer I sit at my “desk” (it’s a table, though: blond wood, stained with 50 years of breakfasts in my grandparent’s kitchen) the less interesting the inside of my head becomes. But I wouldn’t really know. I’m not letting myself in there. What am I hiding in that hard skull that I do not want myself to witness?

I move to the living room: a dining room table of brown Ikea wood is covered with junk mail and the indecipherable clutter of my partner. Clean it up? Not now, I want to write! Still my mind rebels. I’ve got nothing. I don’t know why I even try. Upstairs, the neighbor’s phone vibrates through the ceiling, and the distraction turns me again from my work. Emails fly cheerfully into the upper right corner of the computer screen, popping up like fans behind the free-throw hoop.

I have nothing but distraction. I have no tips for myself, no tips for the other writers who spend their days in a state of suspended concentration. My imagination, so active in my sleep, has shut down for now, and all I can comment on is what I am doing, right now, at this very moment: articulating the space around something I don’t want to think about.

Samba Journal: Intro

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When I was living in Barranquilla, I was hungry for exercise. I was unfamiliar enough with the culture that I wasn’t sure what classes I would like, so I just lazily didn’t take any. Of course, nightly dancing helped me stay limber, but I probably consumed as many calories in beer and aguardiente as I worked off.

When a friend came to visit, she brought me four workout DVDs: Quenia Ribero’s samba workouts. My roommate and I tried one (Afro Reggae!) some steamy afternoon and we were immediately hooked. Quenia’s charisma, along with the new dance moves that we could employ that very night at the corner dance party at La Troja, was a winning combination. I worked out with Quenia’s DVDs for the rest of my time in Barranquilla.

Years later, I moved to New York. Part of my settling into a new home is looking for my workout community, and I wanted to continue learning samba, a dance, music and culture that enchants me. Imagine the thrill I felt when I saw Quenia’s name next to a Samba class just a few miles downtown, at the Alvin Ailey Extension.

I’ve been Sambaing with Quenia pretty steadily fir the last 6 years. She is a wonderful dance Mentor and I never regret going to a class. Samba, with its quick steps, open arms and kicks and turns, is an expression of happiness. I love the low thump of the surdu beneath the constant chattering of repinique. I love dancing Samba!

And that is why I have signed up for the samba performance class. We will be practicing every week to put on a show this summer, and I’ll be writing about the experience here.

I’ve already made the point that I enjoy Samba. In my Samba Journal I want to really delve into that love and explore it. I would also like to interview Quenia and hear more about her story as a Brazilian dancer who’s succeeded on her own here in New York City. Hopefully I’ll be able to dip into some of my own experiences living in Rio de Janeiro. I want to bring it all to you!

If you’re too excited and can’t wait for more samba, check out my playlist La Giraffa’s First Day of Spring. Also, I highly recommend Alma Guillermopreito’s book, Samba!. It’s a little old but that was definitely the beginning of my samba journey and maybe it will be yours, too. IMG_5050.jpg

 

Lunar and the Tide

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In Spanish, the word for a mole on the skin is lunar. This word closely resembles luna, the word for moon, and so I have constructed a bridge in my mind between the dark spots that are scattered across my skin, and the sphere that dominates our night skies.

In some cultures, the moon is linked to femininity, and to the subtle pulls and changes that the non-human universe still effect on our human bodies. I have always enjoyed the fact that our moon moves the tides of the ocean; that distant presence has such a profound impact on our world. As a woman, I feel drawn to the mystery of all of this. And, because of my linguistic associations, the erasure-sized mole I’ve always worn on my back is a symbol of this affinity for me.

So imagine my shock when, after an appointment with a dermatologist who called my lunar my “ugly duckling,” my mole was completely removed. The dermatologist wanted to perform a biopsy, but I did not realize that meant peeling the whole thing off (it was benign). I am sad to have a scar where my mole once was. It always startles me when doctors make decisions without completely informing their patients. It’s as though these doctors wished our peculiarities could be cut away with a knife. Of course, we all know that will never happen. Thank goodness for the moon, quietly shining down on us with calm and soothing light.

The reflection

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In the Greek myth, poor beautiful Narcissus perishes when he observes his reflection and becomes so fascinated that he cannot tear himself away. His legacy lives on in the embodiment of modern-day narcissists, those people whose empathy and interest can scarcely reach beyond the limits of their own fingertips, and the early-blooming flowers that are among the bravest and boldest in temperate regions.

I wonder if we can understand Narcissus differently? After all, he was searching and studying his reflection in the water. Maybe he was noticing the way the ripples of rain altered his surface, or how fish wandered in and out of his outline beneath the surface. Reflection, self-reflection, and looking inward are abilities that are not often attributed to narcissistic people. Still, The trait I’d often scorned by “serious” people with “better things to do”: it seems to be such a luxury, such a waste of time to some.

But we live in a time of turning-off, of looking away, of body dysmorphia and blanket racism. It seems to me that a little more reflecting would be helpful to us all. Why not take a moment and try to see yourself, with all of your surface ripples and all of your slow deep stirrings? It’s difficult in the way only simple things can be. “If it’s simple, it must not be valuable!” But if you, like me, are aching for some change in this world, we need to do like Michael Jackson and that anonymous poet and look at ourselves first.

The Princess Building

3BBADC7A-9A1E-49FA-9E41-0AB51C1C1344.jpegYesterday was meant to meant to be warm. My sister was visiting and we had big plans: the Cloisters, The Botanical Gardens. Drinks on a patio. Long walks through the city. We did some of this. But by the end of her stay, we still craved a bit more of the fresh spring air that collects in pools above blooming tulip and daffodil beds. We wanted to walk under the blossoms of lilacs and magnolias one more time together, before she flew of to the still-thawing Midwest.

We took the train uptown and got off into a wind of pin-prick raindrops. My sister, optimistic, had worn a sweater and overalls with the sleeves and legs rolled up, and no jacket. She rolled her sleeve down. She rolled down her pants legs. It was too cold. We were back with the winter weather, but now with cherry blossoms falling instead of snow. We had to go back inside, and watch the weather tangle in the spire of the Princess Building from behind a window.