Friday, February 28, 2014

True Beauty

In a recent blog entry, acclaimed writer (and awesome guy) Don Cummings mused on beauty in the media, about the "women who are upset...about the images that are being fed to them," admitting, "It's awful," but asking, "Can't the women in movies and on T.V. still be pretty? ... As far as magazines go, the air brushing and slimming and all that, well that's just hell. But please leave me my good looking film and television actors. I'm getting old and loose and I like to be reminded of what it once was like. Hot is hot. It keeps us going. Some joy, please."

So I thought about this for a while, as someone who feels strongly that the emphasis on beauty (especially upon women) is damaging to women personally, and to the culture as a whole... And I thought about the breathtakingly beautiful actors I love to watch. And I thought about the actors who are physically beautiful, and yet whom I find unwatchable because their acting is thin and self-serving.

So I responded with this (slightly modified) comment to Don's entry:
The problem isn't so much not wanting beauty in media, but rather that the definition of "beauty" (certainly where women are concerned) isn't really beauty at all, but conformity to a very narrow set of Barbie-esque physical characteristics that are in fact unhealthy to the point of being grotesque. 
But women are told that if we don't conform to this standard, we won't be valued -- as women or people!
And men are so conditioned to value this standard, that they will override their own natural impulse to see beauty in women who don't fit this standard, in order to maintain status with their male friends. 
I have known quite a few men who have rejected women they admitted to being attracted to -- physically and intellectually -- in favor of a Barbie-esque "beautiful" woman to whom they didn't feel much innate attraction, but whom they believed their friends and family would value more and thereby grant them higher status.
In terms of media, the double-standard is evident. 
You say, "Don't take away the beautiful women." But look at the men. They are all different shapes and sizes, and they all get the girl... who always looks the same: slim, young, even-featured, and usually large-breasted.
It is said that Cleopatra was the most beautiful woman in the world, but that was not because her physiognomy was so special, but rather her charisma and intelligence were irresistible. 
In a recent meme, Emma Thompson is quoted as advising actresses, in response to demands that they "lose weight", to ask, "Is this important for the character?" And if it isn't then they should ask the casting director to tell them that what they want is a model, not an actress. 
In the early '90s, balding, aging actors like Patrick Stewart and Anthony Hopkins became sex symbols -- based on their power as performers and men. Women found them very beautiful indeed. It's said that Patrick Stewart telephoned a woman suffering from ovarian cancer, and the disease went into remission almost immediately.
So it's not that anyone wants less beauty in the media; in fact, we want more of it, in all of its stunning, fascinating, riveting, and transformative variety.
Needless to say, this is a topic I have given a great deal of thought to -- especially in my ten years in bellydance -- often regarded as a quintessentially sexy-beautiful dance form. And it is something I address strongly in Blood on the Veil -- that beauty comes from feeling and expression, from vitality and confidence, far more than from physiognomy.

As I mentioned in a recent ReviewFix interview:  What we want is an experience of beauty, where a thing is beautiful to us because it resonates deeply. This kind of beauty is arresting and powerful, sometimes even disturbing, because it tells us something about ourselves -- and we don't always want to know about ourselves.

The beauty of physiognomy may be pleasing and comforting, and to be sure it has its place in the culture. But it doesn't give us anything new or nourishing or unique, it simply recycles the current images that we are told to value -- and if we do as we are told, then we will be valued too ... or so we are led to believe.

But if we let ourselves respond naturally to the world around us -- regardless of what we are told to believe -- to find what is beautiful to us, uniquely, and enjoy that beauty for its own sake rather than as a way to seek acceptance and approval from others ... how vast and beautiful and joyful might our lives become?

And how might our appreciative gaze nourish the world itself, in its magnificent variety, into greater and greater beauty?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Visioning the New Year Part III: The Goddess Lives...on Neon Pink Posterboard!

Continued from Part I: Mandala Misgivings, and Part II: The Jason Journal

...And then came Goddess Vision Board Day......

Not off to an easy start, I showed up at the First U chapel more than two hours late -- but enthusiastically loaded down with an overflowing box of markers, magazines, and all my old art supplies (I actually used to be pretty decent with a paint brush and was twice the Art Director of my HS literary magazine). 

The project was in full swing, with the group cheerily clipping, pasting, and chatting around a table at the center of the room.

And in the center of the table was the dreaded stack of periodicals -- to me a glossy-leafed impenetrable mess.

My head buzzed with an all too familiar leaden throb. There was just too much stuff!

I took a few calming breaths: "Follow your impulses. You'll find your way to the images you need. Clip out what moves you, leave the rest." To many in the room, I figure these were easy and obvious instructions... but to me the very notion was painfully difficult, almost petrifying. 

(I have a history of anxiety, by the way, and started furiously grinding my teeth in my sleep at age seven... but that is a matter for another day...)

Too daunted by the overflowing table, I circled the room, finding my way to some pretty neon colored posterboards that the facilitators had brought. I picked out a pink one. And I don't even like pink ... usually.

But I liked this one.

I set it down on the stage area at the head of the chapel and made my way to the Big Table o' Stuff.

But I wasn't ready to deal with it. 

I got my art box, which was bursting with so much stuff I needed a bungee cord to keep it together, and even then the pastels, pencils, acrylics, and brushes had collapsed into anarchy during the trip. So I organized the box -- even though I knew I probably wasn't going to use much of it, the simple act of going through this part of my own history, which had been left untouched for decades, grounded me enough to face the table.

And so I returned to the stack, following my improv teacher's advice:  When in doubt, breathe through your mouth, follow your impulses, and trust that whatever you do is The Right Thing.

Well, it's my freaking collage after all, I figured -- don't I get to say what's right or not???

Actually, I kind of don't -- that's the problem.

I've learned, when it comes to creativity, we can't just choose willy-nilly. There is a "right", but it must be found, not forced. 

A thing is "right" if it feels right, if it "pops". So I figured, if I choose by that guidance, then whatever I choose will be "right" enough to proceed.

I leafed through the nearest magazine and tore out any image that "popped" -- no matter how incongruous, absurd, or even clich├ęd it seemed. Stuff like "Do What's Good For You" jumped out, and "Pay It Forward", "INSPIRE!" (in bold italic capitals), a determined woman working out, an old typewriter, a big cat and a cobra, angels ... even Middle Eastern royalty ... and a figure of a blinded young man in the nurturing arms of his burqa'd mother ... all of it resonated

I brought my scraps to the posterboard and cut them carefully, cleanly and placed them around the board as though it were a jigsaw -- large images at the corner and along the bottom, giving the piece an "anchored" feel.

And then the smaller bits swirling around the an image of myself, clipped from a Blood on the Veil flyer, at the center. Topped off with swirls of glitter, stars and musical notes, the mandala completed itself.

And here it is!!

Goddess Vision Board 2014

At first I thought I would do more work at home, that I should fill in the empty spaces .... but when I tacked it to my door ... I realized it was done. Wholly done.

Over the years I've gotten the same advice from spiritual, psychological, and creative teachers:  If you want to make a good choice, pay attention to how a thing feels, because it is through our feeling alone that we experience joy, satisfaction, contentment. If joy is what we want as the result, then the initial choices must have joy in them. Further, it is a sense that is entirely ours and not subject to the judgmental whims of others.

And it is through feeling that the "divine feminine" speaks to us, an inner wisdom that guides, calms, contains our varying states of life, that gives us an inner vision to complement and ground the outer Polaris spun by culture, media, friends, teachers.

Without the former, the latter can tear us up by the roots -- a hapless state in which I spent many years, and which left me unable to create anything at all, much less a physical manifestation of my own Inner Goddess.

Yet now -- plain and simple as neon pink Staples-bought posterboard -- there it was.

And every day, when I leave home, and return again, I see my Goddess Vision Board. And I ask myself, "Do I enjoy looking at this? Do I feel inspired, comforted, invigorated by it? Do I smile when I see it without looking to improve it?"

And every day, the answer is:  Yes.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Visioning The New Year Part II: The Jason Journal

(Continued from Part I: Mandala Misgivings)

In October 2013, I had the honor of working with a remarkable group from First Unitarian in Brooklyn Heights on a production of Mother Wove the Morning -- a theatre show of monologues and vignettes of women's stories throughout history. 

The producers had seen Blood on the Veil and asked me to do an entr'acte to Act 2 excerpting a brief monologue from my show, and ending with a dance where I would bring the cast onstage as part of the routine.

I was initially nervous working with this new group, but was so impressed by the integrity of their work, their commitment not simply to honoring the feminine, but to expressing how the denigration of the feminine hurts both men and women (the final monologue was by a man) ... the experience proved magical beyond my hopes.

Since then, I've joined them for various events and outings, including a trip to see Judy Chicago's watershed feminist art installation The Dinner Party at The Brooklyn Museum, and a winter solstice celebration where we shared songs and poems. I choreographed a simple candle dance that the group could do in a circle, in the tradition of sacred circle dances. 

Then in early January the group exchanged a few emails about putting together "Goddess Vision Boards" ... now, what were these? A scrapbook-type collage of images and words pulled from magazines, calendars, and other printed media, maybe with some other sparkly-starry-glittery stuff thrown in. 

In other words:  Barf.

You see, I hate scrapbooking. I mean I REALLY HATE scrapbooking. 

Over the years I've done various new agey workshops, retreats, seminars--you name it--where inevitably the instructor/leader/facilitator shows up one day with a bunch of magazines and scissors. And if I know this day is coming, I unfailingly find a way to have a "scheduling conflict."

The last time scrapbooking came into my life was at one of Dunya's Dancemeditation retreats a few years ago, where we were to paste images into our journals. (Journals. Ugh. Another practice that I have detested passionately since grade school, but which has plagued me like Jason from Friday the 13th.) 

But it was part of The Work, and I was committed to The Work. (Plus I was staying at the retreat center and I had already managed to get sick enough to stay in bed during Scrapbook Day the year before.)

And so I brought my ugly little book and wrote in it during the detested journal exercises. My pen would drag and halt on the page; I'd feel like my body was covered in goo. I felt like everything I wrote was idiotic and embarrassing.

And, yes, I asked myself why it bothered me so much ... and came up with the usual answers: It felt childish, self-indulgent, foolish. And I did not want to be any of those things. 

And when Scrapbook Day came around, and I looked at the flapping mound of periodicals in the center of the room ... I felt scared. It was just too much stuff, too many images. How could I choose? 

And I realized that the sense of childishness, foolishness came from feeling overwhelmed -- as I felt so often from around age 6. There was always too much information, too many choices; how could I choose? 

And how could I know I made the right choice? The choice that deserved to be put on paper and surrounded by words from my pen? And how did I know that even those words deserved to be committed to paper? (And why the hell was I getting so upset about this??!?!)

And that's where the dreaded self-indulgent part came in. 

For reasons that I'll explore more fully in another entry, I have since early childhood had a persistent unrelenting shaming voice that told me that anything I liked or wanted was bad or wrong, or I was bad or wrong for wanting or liking it. Expressing a like or desire was to open myself up to shame and ridicule, so I found myself constantly asking, "Is it OK to like such-and-such" or worse, "what should I like."

It's that second question that is the killer. Because once you begin to program yourself to second-guess and/or crush every impulse, you will close off your native creativity--which is guided by those very feelings, wants, impulses.

So I started with the journal. 

I found some images I sort of liked and pasted them in. It felt fake and stupid, but I did it anyway. When, as assigned, I wrote in the journal -- eventually coming to those images (the idea was that they would inspire your writing as you came to them), I felt pretty dull, numb, and irritated by them. 

So I wrote about the dullness, numbness, and irritation. 

And I found that just acknowledging those feelings began to open a door. 

I never did take up handwritten journaling as a consistent practice, but my writing began to free up -- which ultimately led me to trust myself enough to blog a bit more (speaking of self-indulgent acts! ), and then to write Blood on the Veil.

Last year I had become friendly with a painter, who inspired me towards putting images on paper.

And then came Goddess Vision Board Day....

To be continued....