Thursday, October 4, 2007

God in South Africa

There's a 12:30 weekday class at this yoga studio near my work. Mary Dana was supposed to teach today, and she's one of my favorites, but I showed up to discover that someone was subbing for her. A white woman named Deborah who explained that her accent was South African.

White South Africans creep me out. I know that's incredibly xenophobic, but it's like meeting a really old German - you can't help thinking, and where were you back when? Now, I know all South Africans aren't racist, and Deborah is really young, so it's hardly like she was an exiled member of the apartheid government or anything, but still. I took one look at her and wondered what black mother had left her own children each day to travel past machine-gunned checkpoints to the white part of town, where sweet baby Deborah waited for her milk, curls and blue eyes shining.

We all got settled, Deborah introduced the theme of the month, and here, my second prejudice of the day reared it's self-righteous head. God.

Each month the studio chooses a theme, and usually it's something inoffensive like Mudras, or Mother, or Forgiveness. October, apparently, was God's month.

There's a certain tic an atheist displays when hearing the word "God." It's a subtle eye roll paired with the quietest release of air in the back of the throat, a short, breathy -uh sound, sort of like the dismissive noise a teenage girl makes right before she says, "whatever." It's not meant to be rude, or even noticed by the speaker. It's more of an emotive gesture, a release of frustration, the sort that develops after a lifetime of uninvited God references in and from neighbors, relatives, strangers, books, door-to-door proselytizers, weddings and, as I recently discovered, funerals.

God really is everywhere.

So, needless to say, I was all set for this to be the worst yoga class ever. A honey-voiced apartheid baby was going to God-talk me to death while running us through an endless series of painful, sweaty, mind-expanding poses. Great.

But then Deborah did something really unexpected. "Let's keep our eyes open," she said as the class began. "We'll start today by looking around the room, seeing all the people in this room, and recognizing that any one of them might be in a great amount of pain right now."

I almost raised my hand. It was amazing. It was like Deborah was this superyogi who could smell the sadness of death. And I was all the way in the back.

The whole class was like that - gentle and surprising and without the usual crazy drive to out-chaturanga the yogi next to me. And then at the end, you do this thing called shavasana, which means corpse pose, and you lie very still on your back and just relax. It's nice.

You know that Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah? Well, Jeff Buckley did a version sometime in the 90s, and Deborah had it on her iPod and played it during shavasana and it was like the height of cheesiness and I bet you can guess what happened next...

There's this thing I like to call the shavasana sob, and every once in a while someone just starts crying in corpse pose. It's really weird. All that twisting and straining and ancient physiological tuning and by the end, some people burst into tears. It's kind of awkward, and everyone else in the room is like damn, what the hell happened? and no one knows if you should just ignore it or go get a tissue, or what.

And today, I was the sobber. Yup, that was me. The shavasana sob had never happened to me before, but ever since Kyle died, I've been waiting for it. I just didn't think Jeff Buckley would be involved.

I wasn't really loud or anything, just sort of quivering and sniffly, and then, like an angel from a formerly-segregated heaven, Deborah was there. She smoothed my forehead. She rubbed my ears. She wiped the tears from my face, laid her hands on my neck, and let them just sit there. It felt really good. I stopped crying.

Deborah, you are a fantastic teacher. That was the most amazing yoga class I've ever been to.

So here, in your honor, because it's fun and the better version anyway, is Leonard Cohen singing on what looks like a 1980s Scandinavian television show:

UPDATE: I now have it on the highest authority that this clip was not filmed in Scandinavia, but in Germany in 1984. Thank you, dear reader. You made my week.


robin said...

.... : )

cynthia said...

Quite a blog, my girl.

Do you remember my telling you about Barney Simon, who worked for years with playwright Athol Fugard in Johannesburg? Truly the most gentle soul and the most original thinker (2nd is Ren W.) I have ever met? Well, Barney and my teacher at Cambridge-Goddard School for Social Change -- his sister in law Josie Simon, were two of the most wonderful human beings ever placed on this earth. They were political, they were activists. They struggled against apartheid for years leaving. While Barney returned to continue the struggle in South Africa, Josie and her husband relocated to the US and raised their wonderful family of 4 boys in Boston. They were part of the wonderful movement that include(d/s) the Barrigans, Zinns, and others. So, a different image for you about the white folk from S.A.

Sallie said...

I Love you

didi979 said...


I just spent the most amazing three days with a whole clan of holy people out on Block Island. Very weird for me . . . but were they great . . . yes!

Scott and Jean Paradise; he was the Episcopalian (I hate spelling) chaplain of MIT for many, many years. He also organized mine workers in Wales and Scotland, was buddies with the Berrigan brothers, new (should that be knows) Noam Chomsky reasonably well and Howard Zinn was on Jean's Ph.D. "panel" (for lack of a better word). They are in there 70's and so wonderful. Scott has Parkinson's now, which obiviously for me had its poignancy! He does yoga three times a week with Jean sort of snidely pushing him along to do it.

Also on retreat were Susan Tifft and Alex Jones - married couple. She worked for Times magazaine for many years and he for the New York Times. He now teaches jounalism at Harvard and she at Duke. She found out in June that she had some type of tumor which all thought to be non-cancerous. Didn't have surgery scheduled until August because the doctors were certain it was nothing - she had a CAT Scan pre-surgery in August which found cancer in her lungs as well. She was then diagnosed with stage 4 uterine cancer - not good. They have written two books together; (she said not a suggested thing to do) one which garnered numerous award nominations about the family which owns the New York Times - where he worked for years. they had a three year sabbatical from each other.

She said, very seriously, that humans historically did not marry for longer than 15 years. Until this century most women did not survive through mutliple child births and you would see one man buried in a cemetary often with at least three wives. The men remarried; therfore, according to her, this was the reason for fewer divorces. she's no dumby and I found this a very interesting theory! (I have to admit she was somewhat tongue in cheek) :)

Pretty much everyone on this retreat was of equal stature AND had a significant spiritual life - either god or someone/something similar .

anyway, there was lots of "God" talk, mediation, poetry, walking the labrynth; I must be becoming a true eccentric old coot, but it was one of the best experiences of many, many years. this woman Susan was WONDERFUL!!!!

I am sending her metta everyday - along with a few family members - has anyone felt it?

Anyway, even those god people can be o.k.; notice I did god with a small "g". I think that's how he/she would like it!

Lots of hugs! and by the way; crying is part of being human!


oliviarh said...

I'm scared to leave a comment because everything is so beautiful it kind of feels like littering, but this is so moving. I'm so glad you shared this.

we love you (even those of us who can't operate computers)


Elizabeth said...

Hi Miranda - I came across your blog by accident - I'm not in the habit of reading or responding to personal blogs but I was very touched by your writing about your brother and I'm really sorry to hear of your loss. I had to respond however, as a white South African, to your apparent belief that white babies in South Africa somehow 'stole' milk from black babies – directly from their mother’s breasts no less - do you really believe that white mothers in SA did not even bother to breastfeed their own children? Your image of your yoga teacher as some kind of baby vampire is quite disturbing - even if this were true (which would make her family very bizarre in the context of South Africa - and the rest of the modern world) you cannot possibly really believe that a baby could somehow be culpable in any way (even a white south african baby – guilty by association maybe?) - so why does the image creep you out? Please think twice before judging someone purely on the colour of their skin, even if its only in the context of the country they were born in. As a white child in SA in the Seventies I was looked after by black children's mothers (breastfed by my own, as was everyone else I knew, just to hammer home that point) as my dad was too ill to work or live with us, and there was no welfare so my mom had to leave us all day and go out to work full-time. This was not a priviledge - I would far, far rather have had my own mother, trust me. As I am sure the black children would have too. I am not excusing or defending apartheid as it was neither excusable nor defensible, and of course I recognise the huge injustices suffered by black South Africans (as pointed out to me often as a child by my mother) but at the same time, I am disturbed by how comfortable people feel hating or blaming south african white people purely on the basis of the country they were born in and their skin colour, as opposed to on the basis of any evidence of their actual culpability or involvement in the system (same with German people). And please please please realise that this idea you have that white women farmed their children out to be breast-fed by black women is just so wrong – I can’t imagine where you got that notion – it may have happened way back in the past when it was practised around the world but not in recent history. South Africa is a hugely complex and beautiful country and nothing about the place or its people is black and white so please hold off on the assumptions. There are plenty of racist white and black south Africans (and Americans, English etc ad nauseum) but there is no way you can tell just by hearing an accent coming out of a white face.

I hope that this does not come off as an angry rant as its not intended that way – I’m just genuinely shocked and quite distressed by your misconception about my country and it was really bothering me so I felt I had to respond to the views that you were sharing in a public forum.

Also, this is reeeaally long, sorry, its just not something you can cover in a few sentences! There’s so much more I could say on this subject but that would mean rambling on for even longer so I’ll spare you that! Peace.

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