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Toko-Pa

Vertigo

Here in Oklahoma, the earth is red and the soil is clay. It is a simmering place, noisy with birdsong yet quiet with the hush of ghosts.

The name Oklahoma comes from Okla humma, meaning “Red People” in the Choctaw language. “Red People” for the 39 Native American tribes that live, breathe, and die here. “Red People” for the tribes forced into exodus from their ancestral homes in the bitterest of uprootings.

On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. He mandated the removal of Native American tribes from their homes. At military gunpoint, families with wise elders and newborn babies were forced to walk across thousands of miles to Oklahoma. By the time the Cherokee arrived from Georgia, they had lost a quarter of their people to starvation, disease, and exposure.

The human suffering produced by that Act landed here in Oklahoma and sunk down into its soil. Today, the pain still vibrates up through the ground into the air as emissions of old anguish. Eckhart Tolle calls this energy that carries the pain of the past into the present “the pain-body.”

“We used to be like Europe,” my Choctaw friend says. “Our different nations were separated by a rich diversity of language and culture. Now we’ve been condensed into one square of land and the symbol of a dreamcatcher. We no longer speak our own language.”

Okla humma. Red people. Soil soaked with blood and tears. Mouths invaded by alien tongues.

Even though I’m a newcomer to Oklahoma, I feel an instant connection to this land and its peoples. We are tied by an umbilical cord of brokenheartedness.

I also came here by a forced exodus. Removed from Europe, my Jewish ancestors carried with them the legacy of a heavy pain-body.

When I first arrived in Oklahoma, I was overtaken by a state of dizziness that has not left. Deep, dark reverberations give me vertigo, the faint echo of a mourning mother’s howl tingles my ears.

It is impossible to eliminate the violence of rape.

The land remembers. The air remembers. Our cells remember.

Toko-Pa

Returning Home to the Sacred

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday morning.

I wake up leisurely, leaving bed only when my cells feel completely satiated with rest. On weekdays, I typically start my morning with a cup of coffee to rev up my brain for productivity. Not Saturday. Today I check in with myself: what would be delightful to drink? I decide to make matcha green tea with milk and honey – sweet, mellow, restorative. I sit on the couch to drink it. And I breathe.  

For over a decade, I’ve been taking baby steps to incorporate the Jewish concept of Shabbat, the weekly day of rest, into my life.

My family observed a moderate form of Shabbat when I was growing up. This meant eating a special dinner on Friday nights complete with candles, wine, delicious challah bread, and blessings.

In college, I was accepted into the Maimonides Jewish Leadership Fellowship. Fellows attended weekly seminars and three Shabbatons, which were immersive Shabbat learning experiences. For each Shabbaton, I would hurry from campus in Binghamton, New York to drive out to Scranton, Pennsylvania, or Monsey, New York in order to arrive at the home of a traditional Jewish family before sundown. Once the sun set, Shabbat began.

In the biblical story, earth, light, and all living beings were created over the course of six days. On the seventh day, all creation ceased and a full day of rest was observed. On this day, all of that effortful work was honored, and energy was restored to prepare for the next creative cycle. This day of rest was both reflective and restorative.

Upon my arrival at a family’s home, I would receive a warm welcome and was then shown to my room. I would share my room with another visiting Maimonides fellow. I would then set up my belongings around my guest bed and turn off my cell phone, as it is prohibited to use electronic devices on Shabbat. I’d tuck my wallet into my suitcase where it would remain untouched until the following evening, and my notebooks and pens inside my backpack. Exchanging money and writing are also prohibited on Shabbat.

Any activity that could be considered an act of creation or work is prohibited.

I would then join my host family for dinner. Around a white tablecloth with silver candlesticks, we would say blessings, drink wine, and eat challah. After a delicious meal and plenty of conversation, I’d return to my room to chat some more with my roommate du jour and read a novel in bed. I would go to sleep early and wake up late, proceeding to spend Saturday alternating between talking, sharing meals, and reading books until sundown when Shabbat ended and the new week began.

For a college student whose days were filled with studying, partying, and checking Facebook, these Shabbat experiences were profound. They were grounding; they settled my mind and body from their typical whir of activity. They were cleansing; they filled me with rest, home-cooked food, and thoughtful conversation.

Only by experiencing this day of rest did I realize how deeply hungry for it I was. Though I had never observed Shabbat quite like this before, it felt familiar.

It was as if I was returning home.

I vowed that I would incorporate Shabbat into my life, no matter how modern nor how busy my life became. I know how it feels to live in constant distraction. By creating the space for Shabbat, I secure my return home to a richer plane of existence,  

These are the four guidelines I use to protect this space:

Carve out hours – I choose 6pm Friday to 6pm Saturday.

Unplug – I turn off my cell phone. I turn off my laptop. There will be no texting, emailing, googling, nor calling. I cannot overemphasize how much this adds to the whole experience.

Tune inward – This is a day to return within. I shift my attention from the external world to my internal world. I listen to the signals from my mind, heart, and body to determine how to use the time restoratively..

Honor desire –  Sometimes, my body screams to play outside and enjoy sunshine. On cold or rainy days, all I want is to curl up on my couch with a good book and a cup of tea. I’ve hiked and biked for hours, and meditated in sacred spaces. As long as I’m following my instincts for enjoying life, I’m in the right place.

My Shabbats remind me that I am here, a body visiting this earth. They remind me that there is great abundance in being alive and that I must not lose sight of it. They are a day to zoom out beyond the day-to-day rhythms of my routines so that I may reconnect with my larger sense of purpose. They are a day to zoom in, to sharpen my senses for listening to my inner rhythms that can be so easily drowned out by outer noise. In this weekly ritual, I reclaim my route back to the sacred.

 

Toko-Pa

A Source of Calm

As a teacher, I learned quickly that one’s energy has tremendous power over a room. 

The confined space of the classroom would detonate regularly with the emotions of thirty children. Like Luke Skywalker I would brace for impact, ducking the beams of anger and frustration as they zoomed by.

To re-establish order in the midst of chaos, I initially reacted by replicating the response of my childhood teachers: yelling. I mustered up a primal fury, inhaled deeply, and with as much volume as I could:

“STOP! SILENCE! SIT! DOWN!”  

An angry loud voice shocks chaos back to order. But it is a brief victory, and using this voice left me poisoned by a cocktail of fight or flight hormones.

Yelling fights fire with fire by adding more anger and anxiety to an already angry and anxious situation. It does not spread calm and certainly does not spread joy.  I was determined to change response to find one that would build an environment of calm joy.

I did not have control over how 30 young people presented themselves at school. But I did have control over how one person presented herself.

The only energy that I could control in a given space was my own.

I started by building calm within myself. I located it within my breath, my body, and my voice.

I practiced breathing slowly, deeply, and mindfully. When in chaotic situations, I inhaled the chaos and exhaled space. When surrounded by anger, I inhaled the anger and exhaled acceptance.  

I noticed where anxious energy was absorbed within my body. When my shoulders rose to my ears, I consciously lowered them.  When my eyebrows raised into my forehead, I relaxed them.

I kept my voice slow, creating space between the sounds.  I kept my voice low, leaving room for quiet amidst the noise. 

I was becoming a conductor of calm energy, radiating it through the room. My calm energy could cool the surrounding anger and chaos.

To add joy to my energetic brew, I focused on smiling. I changed my default facial expression from serious neutral to a light smile. Smiles are contagious: when you smile at someone, they usually catch it and smile back. As I am out in the world, I can smile and spread joy to the people I see.

By adjusting my bodily habits, I learned how to be a source of calm joy to the people and spaces I encountered. This was more cooling than yelling would ever be.

We have incredible power to impact the spaces that we occupy. We can spill out angry, fearful energy and fan flames. Or we can choose to smile and breathe, and spread cooling peace.