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A Brother’s Love August 2, 2020

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“Impossible is just a word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

 

– Muhammad Ali

Yesterday I referred to Maria Mitchell as an impossible woman. Back in 2016, thanks to Justin Timberlake quoting Muhammad Ali to a bunch of teens, I started thinking about what it meant to be an impossible person and spent the first week in August highlighting impossible people. Born today in Harlem, New York, in 1924, the author James Baldwin is – by his own words – my second impossible person.

“Given the conditions in this country to be a black writer was impossible. When I was young, people thought you were not so much wicked as sick, they gave up on you. My father didn’t think it was possible—he thought I’d get killed, get murdered. He said I was contesting the white man’s definitions, which was quite right.”

 

– James Baldwin, quoted from the interview “James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78” by Jordan Elgrably (printed in The Paris Review, Issue 91, Spring 1984)

Mr. Baldwin’s life (and career) were, in so many ways, shaped by a combination of the opinions of his father (who he referred to as his father), his stepfather’s opinion of how the world would view him, how the world actually viewed him, and his own ideas about what was possible – or, what was necessary. He spent the ages of 14 – 17 following his father’s footsteps into the ministry and then, when his father died, he took a giant leap. He said, “Those were three years [preaching] which probably turned me to writing.”

Mr. Baldwin not only leapt into writing. He leapt across the pond to Paris, France, twice, even as his writing challenged Western society’s conceptions about race, class, gender, and sexuality. His essays, novels, and plays include Giovanni’s Room, Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, If Beale Street Could Talk (which was recently made into a movie) and the unfinished manuscript Remember This House (which was adapted to create the 2016 Academy Award-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro). Mr. Baldwin first went to Paris with $40 and not a lick of French. He was 24 years old, coming to grips with his sexuality, and escaping what he viewed – what he had witnessed – was a death sentence at the hands of American society.

“Not so metaphorically. Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.”

 

– James Baldwin, quoted from the interview “James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78” by Jordan Elgrably (printed in The Paris Review, Issue 91, Spring 1984)

From Paris, he was able to not only gain perspective about his experiences of being Black in America (and of being Black and Gay in America), but also to offer those experience back to the United States – in the form of a literary mirror. In words that very much echo Miss Maria Mitchell’s words, he said wanted to see himself, and be seen as, more than “merely a Negro; or, merely a Negro writer.”

In his late 30’s/early 40’s, Mr. Baldwin briefly returned to the United States and physically participated in the Civil Rights Movement and Gay Liberation Movement that he had (from Paris) helped to literally inspire. He became friends with Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Lorraine Hansberry, Nikki Giovanni, and Nina Simone (who he and Mr. Hughes convinced to become active in the Civil Rights Movement). He worked with Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, as well as Lena Horne and Miss Hansberry, to discuss the importance of civil rights legislation with President John F. Kennedy.

His friendships, however, were not only with Black artists and activists. He worked with his childhood friend Richard Avedon, marched with Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston, collaborated with Margaret Mead and Sol Stein, and also knew Rip Torn, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Dorothea Tanning. In fact, to read a biography or biography of James Baldwin is to read a who’s who of activism and artistry in the 20th century. But, you don’t have to settle for a reading a measly biography. If you can get your hands on the 1,884 pages of documents compiled by the FBI, you would be in for quite a treat.

Yes, you read that correctly. For a little over a decade, the FBI collected nearly two thousand pages worth of documents on a man many Americans may not realize helped convince President Kennedy to send federal troops to defend the civil rights activists marching from Selma to Montgomery. True, it’s not the well-over 17,000 pages they compiled on Martin Luther King (not including the wire-tap documents). Here, however, is some perspective: the FBI only collected 276 pages on authors like Richard Wright (Native Son), 110 pages on Truman Capote (In Cold Blood), and Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer). Additionally, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover showed a particular interest in Mr. Baldwin and actually worked with agents to figure out ways they could ban Mr. Baldwin’s 1962 novel Another Country – despite the fact that the report of the Justice Department’s General Crimes Section “concluded that the book contains literary merit and may be of value to students of psychology and social behavior.”

“The occurrence of an event is not the same thing as knowing what it is that one has lived through. Most people had not lived — nor could it, for that matter, be said that they had died– through any of their terrible events. They had simply been stunned by the hammer. They passed their lives thereafter in a kind of limbo of denied and unexamined pain. The great question that faced him this morning was whether or not had had ever, really, been present at his life.”

 

– quoted from Another Country by James Baldwin

 

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

 

– quoted from The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

When so many of his friends, who were also the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, were killed, Mr. Baldwin made his second leap back to Paris. Again, it was a leap made out of fear and the basic desire to survive. His grief, anger, horror, and disappointment are all on full display in later works like If Beale Street Could Talk, Just Above My Head, and the 1985 non-fiction book  Evidence of Things Not Seen (about the Atlanta child murders). Yet, until his dying day he wrote about love and hope – even using a portion of the Epistle to the Hebrews, from the Christian New Testament, as the title of the his book about the Atlanta child murders.

Another place where you can see Mr. Baldwin’s devotion to love, life, and humanity is in the words of his friends; people, who actually knew him, were inspired by him, and some who called him Jim or Jimmy. When he died in 1987, Maya Angelou wrote a tribute for The New York Times, entitled “James Baldwin: His Voice Remembered; Life In His Language.” In addition to describing how Mr. Baldwin introduced her to his family as his mother’s newest daughter, she explained that he “opened the [unusual] door” and encouraged her to tell her story.

“Well, the season was always Christmas with you there and, like one aspect of that scenario, you did not neglect to bring at least three gifts. You gave me a language to dwell in, a gift so perfect it seems my own invention….

 

The second gift was your courage, which you let us share: the courage of one who would go as a stranger in the village and transform the distances between people into intimacy with the whole world; courage to understand that experience in ways that made it a personal revelation for each of us…. Yours was the courage to live life in and from its belly as well as beyond its edges, to see and say what was, to recognize and identify evil, but never fear or stand in awe of it….

 

The third gift was hard to fathom and even harder to accept. It was your tenderness – a tenderness so delicate that I thought it could not last, but last it did and envelop me it did. In the midst of anger it tapped me lightly like the child in Tish’s womb…. Yours was a tenderness, of vulnerability, that asked everything, expected everything and, like the world’s own Merlin, provided us with the ways and means to deliver. I suppose that was why I was always a bit better behaved around you, smarter, more capable, wanting to be worth the love you lavished, and wanting to be steady enough to bear while it broke your heart, wanting to be generous enough to join your smile with one of my own, and reckless enough to jump on in that laugh you laughed. Because our joy and our laughter were not only all right, they were necessary.”

– quoted from  “James Baldwin: His Voice Remembered; Life In His Language” by Maya Angelou (printed in The New York Times Book Review December 20, 1987)

I have cancelled class today and tomorrow night, but encourage you to practice. Practice with those aforementioned gifts and especially the second and third gifts – with courage and tenderness that has you lifting the corners of your mouth up to your ears and laughing out loud.

In the past, I have used a variation of my “Langston Hughes” playlist, which features Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, and a whole lot of Bach. You are welcome to use my “Selma to Montgomery” playlist, which is available on YouTube. However, if you have time, I would encourage you to grab some Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte (“Merci Bon Dieu” comes to mind, of course), Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joan Baez – and then mix in some of the aforementioned jazz.

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

“Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word love here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth….Love is a growing up.”

 

 

– James Baldwin

 

### OPEN THE DOOR, & LET ME IN (OR OUT)! ###

2016 Kiss My Asana #3: Be Where You Are! February 3, 2016

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“There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.”

– James Baldwin

 

 “Yes, I understand that every life must end, uh-huh / As we sit alone, I know someday we must go, uh-huh / Oh I’m a lucky man, to count on both hands the ones I love/ Some folks just have one, yeah, others, they’ve got none / Stay with me… / Let’s just breathe…”

“Just Breathe” by Pearl Jam

 

There are people who spend a lot of time worrying about what’s ahead of them or what’s behind them. Lao Tzu says, the first group is depressed and the second group is anxious. He also mentions a third group, a group of people who are present and at peace. Like that third group, Ann G (Yogini #2 or Yogi #3, depending on how you keep track) takes life as it comes.

That’s not to say that she doesn’t have her moments of worry or anxiety – Ann G is a mom, after all – but she somehow manages to ride the ebbs and flows of life; rising and falling, as if surfing through life is the most natural thing in the world. I have watched her literally, figuratively, and physically fall down and get back up. And, like a surfer catching the big waves, she always seems grateful for some aspect of the wild ride. In the end, isn’t that what the practice is all about? Isn’t that what life is all about?

The questions which one asks oneself begin, at least, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others.” – James Baldwin

Not running from something / I’m running towards the day / Wide awake // A whisper once quiet / Now rising to a scream / Right in me // I’m falling, free falling / Words calling me / Up off my knees // I’m soaring and, darling, / You’ll be the one that I can need / (and) Still be free // Our future’s paved with better days” – Eddie Vedder’s “Better Days”

Ann G is one-half (or maybe it’s more like one-fifth, when you start counting kids) of an incredible love story. Stay tuned for the other half…or fifth.

In the interest of full disclosure, Ann G’s favorite musical moment may have happened with another teacher. Which I think is totally groovy!

Speaking of other teachers, Sandra Razieli just joined a joyful team!We taught together at last year's Sukkot retreat and this is our third year asking you to Kiss (Our)Asanas!Check out her yogathon promo video!

~ SO HUM , HUM SA ~