Ramadan Day 8 – Wild Goose Qi Gong

IMG_5857questions and answers by Lucille Clifton


Three hours into consciousness on Saturday my back felt sore from lying in bed to watch episodes of Arrow.

I remembered how Pele told me she would do yoga and even go on runs while she fasted. This was really hard for me to hear because I’m such a fasting sloth. But it was also inspirational. As much as I’ve wanted to be more physically active, I can feel my age. When I first started fasting, over eight years ago, I would actually play competitive doubles tennis matches with my girlfriend at the time while we both fasted. It’s true that the days were shorter, and I was fitter, but still I’ve run into a lot more health problems this year.

The other day I wrote Orion, a friend I don’t know well, but whom I trust implicitly because she’s always at the readings (poetry AND prose) that I attended in NYC. I didn’t actually go to a lot of readings, but when I did, Orion was there. Sometimes she’d be there by herself. She wasn’t there for the scene. Someone who loves books and words that much is obviously capable of being good with Allah. I asked Orion for advice about fasting structure. She curated a few great suggestions, including not saving the to-do’s all for the end of the day, writing a list of only 3 things to do that day, keeping something fun in that mix, and the one that seemed best: get some fresh air. “Air out your mind,” Orion wrote.


“Air out your mind,” Orion wrote.


Keeping Pele, Orion, and that whole literary pack of exercise and fitness fanatics in mind, I slowly formed the thought that I needed to at least get out of bed.

I decided to go to the Wild Goose Qi Gong class at the YMCA. I mean with a name like that how could anybody resist? Qi Gong, for those of you who don’t know what it is – can be googled. But seriously, it is basically energy movement exercises, and it’s meant to heal the body. It’s very gentle. In fact, ever since I kicked my headache a few days ago with pedialyte (thanks Domenica), I’ve thought I should challenge myself with some form of exercise, but nothing fit until I saw this illustrious description:


Increase balance and body awareness in this freely flowing, spirited class that uses slow, graceful movements to mimic the wild goose and align breath, movement and awareness. Appropriate for beginners and older adults.


I’ve always wanted to mimic the wild goose. Is it the Y or Y-MOMA? Anybody’s call.

“Remember, in Qi Gong, we are teaching the body to heal itself,” Etienne, the course instructor said as she swept us through movement after movement.

Nearly everybody in the class was a senior, or disabled – a couple people stayed seated in chairs and one in a wheelchair. Etienne was wonderfully disorganized and didn’t both to overly explain anything she was doing. Her accent felt familiar as rain. I rather liked her style, basically “keep up and breathe.”

During a water break, she came up to me and introduced herself since I wasn’t a regular.

“Do you have any health issues or problems, any pain, that I should know about?” she asked. “I have to ask you if you’ve done Qi Gong before?”

“I did some Tai Chi, but not Qi Gong. Actually, I’m in great health,” I chirped. I tried not to think about throwing out my upper back the other night, or how my right knee hurts when I crouch. I tried not to think about my pain, and even though I wasn’t planning on telling her, I added. “Oh, not that it matters, but I’m fasting for Ramadan.”

“Well, I fast a couple times a year. That’s no problem. Hmmm. You know fasting is all about elimination,” she said. “In Qi Gong, everything needs to be round. We are constantly moving, shifting the energy.”

“Like this?” I asked. I spread a wing and my beak toward the ceiling.

“Like this,” she said, bowing her neck. “Keep moving. More. More. Move your body more.”

I obliged and unfurled my wings.

“How can you heal if you don’t move?”


“How can you heal if you don’t move?”


The best question anyone’s asked this goose in a long time.

Soon after my breakup last summer, it became difficult for me to ride the metro alone. Traveling even the distance from my home in Brooklyn into Union Square on the Q express, which is a relatively easy train ride, felt as if I was taking an elevator down to the center of the earth. To doom. Even going a few stops to Atlantic filled me with panic. It was exhausting to go anywhere. I felt friends judging me as I frantically did backflips or rearranged things or texted everyone I knew just so that I could have company on a subway ride or get them to come toward me. Or, if I couldn’t accommodate my fear, I didn’t leave my apartment.

When I was in California, I asked to be driven everywhere. I felt confused behind the wheel. I felt that I maybe didn’t care enough, or didn’t have the energy to care about what was happening on the road, so it wasn’t safe for me to drive.

All of these are symptoms of depression. I knew it, but I also didn’t care.

So it’s natural, I suppose, that one of my turning points was the extended travel I did in the Fall. I cried my way to Beacon by myself for my birthday, joined by two dear friends, and my apartment toilet broke for over a couple week (you couldn’t flush it whatever the method so it seemed an apt analogy to say my life was shit). I sobbed my way to Queens for a night and then Brooklyn to stay with friends whose bathrooms worked. I got on a plane and went to Dallas for a few days, and then weeks later, I flew to Cleveland, Ohio to do election protection work with Courtru, and when I came back, after the disaster election, I left again to hang out with Sami in Long Island for Thankstaking. I was scared of the train each time. I was scared to be traveling. The beginning, especially, of each of those trips was filled with anxiety and terror.

Yet talking to Queen, a year later, all I can think about is how much I want to drive up and down the coast with Queen to LA, or go to Santa Cruz, or drive across the country when they take their car to NYC. Because I want to knock myself up, I’m scared that I don’t get to fly places, and if I’m successful I won’t get to travel the way I used to travel. A couple weeks ago, I told my mom that I couldn’t join her in Taiwan this year. Wouldn’t you know it? I’m no longer scared that I’ll have to travel — I’m scared I won’t get to travel. What a relief.

I told Queen about Etienne and the Wild Goose Qi Gong because who wouldn’t want to know about something called Wild Goose Qi Gong.

“I miss fasting with the queer Muslims in NYC,” I said. “I feel like I don’t know how to communicate with people here because most of the people I know in California aren’t fasting. I’m worried that I’ll say stupid things.”

“Fasting with someone is like taking drugs with them,” Queen said. “It’s a special experience, like tripping on acid, and you really feel this connection because other people can’t understand you, but you can understand each other. It’s a special bond.”


“Fasting with someone is like taking drugs with them,” Queen said.


 

I thought about the years I had Suhoor with Saimo or Iftar with the Imam and S, and even Iftar with Penny — how lovely it sometimes was.

“Maybe that’s why I still Skype in before Iftar. Maybe despite all the ways in which there’s been so much conflict and toxic stuff in our community. At the heart of it – they were the first community I fasted with – these are the people I Iftar’d with. I never had a mosque and so I feel attached and a part of something.”

Many queer Muslims experience community as dysfunction through their Masjids.

Etienne’s voice came back to me. “Fasting is about elimination.”

By leaving NYC when I did, I tried to eliminate all the excess negative energy from other people’s problems, the hellfire of drama. In some ways, it was a city that brought me so many lovely people. But caring about those same people often felt like my downfall. My friend Doll, a native New Yorker once warned me: “In NYC you have to be tough because you have to prioritize. There’s always something and someone else to deal with. You always have options, so you get to know what’s important to you.”

“I read today that trauma not transformed is transmitted.” – Queen

It’s taken me a long time to understand what belongs to me and to see the difference between people who are broken and need love and who has done the work and can love. There have been times when I thought I could be there for people, but mostly, I failed them because I wasn’t working on myself – I was distracting myself from my problems by engaging in theirs.

These past years I’ve deserved to heal. That’s why I tell my friends to seek therapy. That’s why I love seeing people work so hard on myself. You’ll never find me in a corner pointing at someone and being like, “That person spends way too much time getting therapy, or doing healing work, or working through their pain.”

Once, while driving on the 10 in LA heading West to downtown, I heard an expert in I-don’t-know-what ask the radio DJ, “What’s the opposite of depression?”

“Maybe happiness or joy,” the DJ answered.

“No, the opposite of depression is empathy.”

“I don’t get that. How is that the opposite?”

“Because when you’re depressed you start focusing inward more and more until all your energy is concentrated solely on your problems. You’re locked in a belief that nothing you do is worthy. You can’t see yourself as you actually are. You can’t see outside of your own thoughts or your own feelings. Empathy is the ability to feel what’s outside of you and your experience.”

If there’s one thing I recommend to folks who’ve experienced trauma it’s to travel. Go somewhere else, preferably someplace you’ve never been before. Being surrounded by the unknown activates every part of your mind to try and understand what is happening around you, why it’s happening. When you return, your confidence is buoyed.

I don’t mean that you have to buy an expensive plane ticket, or take the train, though those are great options. Only that you do something to shake your mind loose. For Queen, that was acid. For me, it was a combination of travel and working out regularly. I got rid of some bad habits in the hopes that it would give me the confidence to make changes. Movement. Change.

For example, how I felt at the beginning of every train ride was similar to how I feel every time I sit down to write. It’s as if some terrible dungeon door forged of metal and steel has materialized, locked, in front of me. It was built by people much stronger and taller than me. It has to be pushed open somehow, and I can’t cut it. But I put my shoulder to it, and then sit down and cry, and then get up, and put my shoulder to it, and then sit down and cry, and one day, by inches, I get the door open a crack. I’m so happy that I push it a little wider, and wouldn’t you know it – from there, the door gets easier and easier to open. Once it swings open, I walk through to the other side.

I’m not a body-centered person. I’m not an earth sign, or even a fire sign. I’m not from an active lifestyle family. The opposite. A family full of heart disease and diabetes, television and potato chips, smoking and cancer. Our struggle isn’t vanity. Exercise isn’t my common sense. But maybe that’s why Wild Goose Qi Gong was so great. It wasn’t exercise, per se, it was movement.

I’m the child of immigrants. My parents know what it means to travel to a foreign land and to face the unknown so that they and their children can lead a better life. Immigrants know how impossible it is to hang on to who they used to be in light of all this newness. Just ask how their kids feel as the parents try to establish a static old world order while the kids learn English and “American” values. Yet even as an immigrant begins to adapt, to acclimate, and even to forget their past, they find they can’t leave behind the person they used to be. Even if they want to. Opposing forces.

The magic of immigrant families is that we know what it means to take the old place / old self and to fuse it together with the new place /new self. We are original structures. It’s an alchemy of sorts, the transformation Queen was talking about.


returning


 

The sad part is that the bones of the immigrant’s structure are new, and often they’re delicate because they’re healing. The doctor always reminds me to treat emotional injuries like broken bones — they need to be held with such care. We can’t put much weight on them because they’ve recently mended. But in this country, with all its violence and its torment of materiality, we immediately get to ground and we have to start running.

This is also the magic of fasting for Ramadan. I’m getting rid of my excesses. My intentions aren’t just to stop eating and drinking and to make it through the day. I’m fasting from drama. I’m letting go of grudges and petty hurts. I’m making way for the journeys that matter most to me. Love. Family. Writing. Community. I know I needed to move deeply into my fears and also toward love, and that’s why I moved to California. I’m fasting for simplicity. I’m fasting to get to the heart of my matters.

Ramadan keeps me from running too fast, from getting too far ahead of myself, from moving at my usual speed. It doesn’t prevent me from moving.

In fact, during Ramadan, one would say that we’re moving more deliberately and more inward, rather than outward. We move away from the daily tribulations and sorrows and anxieties that usually occupy us. We move to a place that is more slow, a place of pause.

My friend Pink is Sufi. I’ve told this story before in my blogs, but I need to tell it again. Her grandmother loves the month of Ramadan. She especially loved to fast, but in her 70’s, her health no longer permitted her to fast. She decided to start fasting and drinking water. She would sit for hours praying and only sip when she was thirsty. When another Muslim pointed out that she wasn’t fasting, she said that Allah would see her intentions and that was her way of fasting. It had never been her intention to deny herself what was necessary to her body, but what was unnecessary to her mind.


Night

By Kazim Ali

Up against the window, the fading sun.

In rags, Orion’s notes appear against your skin.

Sparsely thrown across your chest.

Swathed in the folds of blankets.

Now you are luminous.

The bow no longer exists.

The star chart I traced into the palm of my hand.

Has smoke written all through it.

Are you terrified of absolute silence?

I drive miles into the country just to have a look at you.

You are no plagiarist of dusk.

Nothing in the sky equals itself.

All the stars have changed positions.

All the fortunes have been faked.

Charted against a lover who hasn’t existed for a million years.

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