Rhythm & Reckoning
My earliest memory is of watching a summer parade from our big, second-floor apartment window in Chicopee, Massachusetts with my father. What I remember most was not watching, though. It was what I heard and felt. A passing marching band included a musician with a huge bass drum. When he slammed the instrument, the air vibrated. I was stunned, my little mouth wide open. I could feel the drum through my entire body.
Gabrielle Roth, the founder of the 5Rhythms practice said, “Rhythm is our mother tongue.” Lately, rhythm is holding me, even during this period of grueling pandemic uncertainty and intense racial reckoning.
Today I danced the same wave – the same song list – twice. In 5Rhythms, a wave is when we move through each of the 5Rhythms – Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stilness – in sequence.
The first was at high noon, after a long bike ride with my ten-year-old son, Simon, and a period of sitting meditation. I slathered on sunblock and set up speakers in the backyard at my parents’ house in Northern Connecticut, where Simon and I are temporarily staying.
Thoughts circled in my brain as I settled down into Flowing. Thoughts about racial justice initiatives, red tape I need to attend to, the many challenges around Simon’s schooling for the fall, and challenges around my own work, which is also in a school, kept spiking even as I turned attention to the feet again and again, moving in unending circles in the dappled shade of a maple tree on the yard’s edge.
As the flowing songs I had planned ended, instead of a flowing staccato song to transition into Staccato, I put on a thick, twitchy, poetic track that moved me to shake and swoon, a mini moment of Chaos that set the tone for the rest of the wave.
For the second rhythm, Staccato, one of the songs in this playlist was a remix of a Paul Simon song. I thought at length about a conversation about how different songs had impacted different people; and how important it is to listen carefully to lyrics, to research the artists, to understand the context of a song, and to consider it through a lens of racial justice before playing it publicly. I find this remix irresistible, but because of issues of cultural appropriation (which may or may not be valid) with Paul Simon’s work in South Africa in the 1980’s, I would be hesitant about playing it publicly.
Still, I felt ferocious as song after staccato song ran me all over the yard.
Chaos surprised me. When I dance at high noon, I have to be under the shade of the big maple tree, and I’m much more visible than usual to my parents’ neighbors and passing cars. I tend to be less vocal and less explosive. Today, that was not the case. Some potent emotion came gripping my throat and I danced it before I could name it, throwing my head wildly, dropping low, vocalizing, and moving in a wild matrix.
The emotion that was presenting was rage.
In recent facilitated conversations during this moment of racial reckoning, I’ve tried to talk myself out of this emotion.
Who am I, a white woman, to feel or express rage now, of all times? At a time when Black and Brown voices should be centered, my place is to listen deeply, to be in service. But then what to do with this emotion, that is boiling over, that is taking over my body? It’s rage toward myself for the times I should have spoken up or taken action against racism but stayed silent. For the times I’ve been unskillful. And for the times I’ve caused harm.
Back in April, I had a conflict with a family member who wasn’t observing social distancing with my ten-year-old son, Simon, in a way that felt safe for me. And just last week, my sister came to visit with my niece. My niece wanted to see something in the garden, and without even thinking about it, I scooped her up and carried her over the fence, totally disregarding social distancing, and certainly upsetting my sister. I didn’t even realize I’d done it until the next day.
Some unexamined impulse that felt automatic came up and I just acted. Just like my own family member who I was so upset with. This is part of the inner work for me now, to deeply examine what feels automatic for underlying narratives of racial superiority, and its supportive underpinings.
This is not only a moral prerogative, but I also stand to personally benefit. Every time I identify and interrogate a story that makes me believe I am in any way separate, I move closer to truth, freedom, and a true sense of belonging.
And this rage that came up in the dance wasn’t just directed toward myself. It was also rage for the systems we are immersed in. For all the times I’ve brought things up and been gaslighted. For what I’ve seen and felt and known as the parent of a child of color. For all the instances of generalized oppression and othering that contribute to and create a basis for racism.
Who am I to feel all of this?
And yet I feel it and what to do. Where to put it, where to express it. Ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch. And this body, that is not separate from all bodies, is in pain. And this pain is problematic, but there it is, searing and tight.
I want to express this and I don’t. I don’t want to bog down collective forums with the individual work that I must take personal responsibility for. And at the same time, I answer to my body, above everyone else, and it is speaking loudly.
I love and respect the activists who are generous, patient, and committed to the long haul. But I’m not feeling that way right now.
Right now, I want to blow things up.
I’m tired. I’ve had a front row seat to oppression for too long now, as a white teacher in a segregated public school district; as a human being in a country that voted for Donald Trump; as a practitioner in a Buddhist tradition that basically detonated because of patriarchy and abuse, where I bumped into a wall of opacity again and again.
Please, please don’t tell me to put it into the practice. For more than a decade, I’ve been putting it into practice. And that has helped me to cope and to gain insight. But it can’t just end with personal practice. Now it’s time to move beyond just my personal reckoning, to a reckoning on a larger stage. To a systemic reckoning.
And all that was just the first wave.
Later in the day, I danced to the same wave. I had planned to join a group of dancers via zoom, but misinterpreted time zones and class invites and wound up on my own instead. I considered having a glass of wine and relaxing with my family, but decided to play the day’s earlier wave and move to it again instead.
Flowing was brief. I thought maybe I could half-ass it a little, cut out some of the songs, sort of move through the motions. I felt bad because my family was finishing up dinner, and I didn’t want the music to disturb them. I was clipped, noting the very hard, dry ground and wondering if I could even go all out without hurting myself.
Then that same thick, poetic song, which was “Let the Devil In” by TV on the Radio, exploded me again, giving me exactly what I needed – a peek into gigantic, poetic reality, a chance to shake myself to life. I thought about the folk belief of letting the devil in, the idea that you made this mess, you brought this on, you let it in, and I couldn’t help but relate it to American society as I now experience it, and my part in it.
I put on a lyrical-feeling staccato track, Jerusalema, by South African DJ and producer Master KG featuring vocalist Nomcebo Zikode. I threw down in delighted engagement, at times doing my best to replicate the dance I’d seen on a youtube video, moving my hips for four counts, jumping my feet in scissors for four counts, dipping and turning, then repeating the sequence.
In staccato chaos, I fell out to a song by Tribe Called Red, which I’m embarrassed to say I only just learned is an Indigenous Canadian band. I sunk low, rocked hips in a planar experiment, and bounce-paused in rhythmic expression.
Chaos was, again, the centerpoint and critical mass of this dance, seducing me to explode with what I was carrying. I thought Chaos was over after a long, psy trance track, but the next song took me deeper still.
This was also a TV on the Radio Song, this one titled “Happy Idiot” – my version of a shadow lyrical song. It’s about a breakup, but also about shutting down and trying to convince yourself and others that you’re happy when you actually are not. It’s the same song I had put on after a long, formal conversation about racial justice the day before. It was like a demon took me over. I growled from the deep belly, occasionally acting as a “Happy Idiot” and waving enthusiastically, then switching back to a sarcastic rage I wasn’t fully aware lived in my body.
I put on one of my favorite lyrical tracks, then a beautiful stillness track, though I still wasn’t fully ready to wind down. I could have growled in Chaos for several more hours, but life called me back.
Tomorrow is another day of reckoning, another chance to be whole, another chance to remember that for all of us, rhythm is our mother tongue, calling us back to who we really are, calling us back to our birthright – which is love – and calling us to action.
July 29, 2020
“And someday when we do finish that long journey towards freedom, when we do form a more perfect union — whether it’s years from now or decades or even if it takes another two centuries — John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.” –President Barack Obama
“All this dancing is bullshit if we aren’t taking it into the streets.” –Gabrielle Roth
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.