I want to signal boost a short conversation I just had after my 6:15am yoga class at FFC Lincoln Park. A deep bow to Mary, my friend, who initiated this train of thought with me.
I made a series of drawings last summer that engage with the architecture of playgrounds and the conventions of landscape painting. They are largely joyful drawings, completed in quick spurts of inspiration, without too much fuss. I made them in a spacious studio in Bavaria, where I was on an extended artist residency (thanks to the generosity of my friends and fans, who bought all manner of offerings from me as the date of departure approached to help me get there).
Mary is one of the strongest people I casually know. She carries that strength in her body, which has the muscular flare of someone who has challenged herself again and again, someone who enjoys pushing the limits of physical endurance as an insight practice. She also carries that strength in her professional life, which has threads of service and radical support weaving in and around traditional American corporate structures. I benefit from her strength in the way she opens up to suggestions during class and dialogues with me in and around the practice of yoga. I consider her a kind of space holder, someone who offers me nourishment as an instructor by being both grounded and vulnerable, twin qualities I want to embody when I share yoga.
Mary broke her arm recently, a challenging obstacle for anyone doing posture-based practices that involve hands on the ground. When you can't do downward-facing dog, how do you embed yourself in the flow of vinyasa yoga? Experimentally. Mary has been showing up and figuring it out, sharing a new shade of her strength by respecting the limitations imposed by her injury while also caring for her body-mind as a whole. In short, Mary is a badass.
This morning after practice Mary was asking me about those joyful playground-inspired drawings. She really likes this one:
And also this one:
Mary likes playgrounds in part because of her strength training: she and a few other bold friends enjoy visiting Chicago's network of playgrounds in off-hours (usually early morning) when kids aren't occupying them, and reinterpreting the structures as adult play spaces: places for grown folks to challenge their bodies and animate their imaginations. I'm fascinated by this practice of hers, the elegant way it remakes space for creative use while also leaving no trace. It feels like visionary work to me. Mary is figuring out how to bring joy and playfulness into an adult life that is tethered, like most of ours, to work that can weigh down our spirits. And she's doing this work within the confines of the built world as we know it.
Anyway, as we are talking about these drawings this morning, Mary asks me about the motivations for the work. And at this point in my life, I'm able to share my motivations in ways I couldn't when I was a slightly younger artist, in graduate school, trying to validate myself in the eyes of certain intellectually brilliant but emotionally guarded faculty (#notallfaculty -- I'm not blaming anybody, just being real about my response to an environment). I think I told Mary, "Those drawings are largely about joy," or some wording like that, which is true. I love looking at playgrounds for similar reasons that Mary likes playing on them. What can abstract forms designed with an orientation toward hope and growth teach us about not only how we perceive our most hopeful iterations (our children), but ourselves and our adult world?
Speaking the word "joy" into this world is a tricky thing. Mary resonated with the word, and reflected back to me how important a sense of joy is in her own life and processing. But she also shared how people nowadays respond to that word and the emotional affect surrounding it with suspicion. What business does anyone have feeling any joy these days? She invoked a different word -- bleak -- to describe the socially acceptable affect of life in the USA right now among progressive peoples. We talked about the curious nature of this posture: that, among people who are doing the necessary work of staying abreast of the manifold devastation of this time, to feel joy seems either uninformed or irresponsible.
I am writing this post to push back against this tendency. I'm fighting against this posture of bleakness with every asana I know. It isn't that I don't get it: shit is indeed unquestionably bleak for pretty much all forms of earthly life except a narrow band of white supremacists and the stunningly unconcerned uber wealthy, and those that have managed to find themselves unconcerned for other reasons (salutations to all of you; I'm not out here judging). We are bearing witness to stunning regressions of cultural expansion and backlashes against life-giving principles of diversity, inclusion, protection, and support. I could tell Mary was hesitant about dropping this word "bleak" on me, perhaps because I'm a yoga instructor, but one of the few things I am sure of about yoga is that if you don't know what ground you stand on, you cannot go anywhere with this work. And if we really check in with the earth beneath our feet right now, we will undoubtedly notice it is charred by hatred, and fear, and scornful neglect.
All of this was true when I was making those paintings in Bavaria. During my six-week residency it felt like every time I checked in with the news, the world broke a little more. I was making little devotional drawings to the sun when someone drove a truck through Bastille Day celebrations in Nice and took 84 lives clean off the face of the earth. I had just started to find my working rhythm when a man who hadn't quite reached 30 years of age entered a sacred refuge for LGBTQ people in Orlando and gunned them down indiscriminately, destabilizing the energetic network of support for the diversity of love in my home country. The potential catastrophe of 45's ascendance to viable candidacy was becoming palpable, lapping at our ankles like the high tide coming in from a vast, lifeless sea.
And yet, I found joy everywhere I looked, and wherever I could figure out how to, I offered a little joy that I'd been gifted with through the internal fire of my yoga practice. A hellish world produces bleakness, and a smart yoga practice produces joy, and so we stick to our tools, good yogis and yoginis. Samkhya philosophy is an idea about how life works that informs yoga techniques, and at the heart of Samkhya is the idea that consciousness itself, which manifests in all living beings, is inherently blissful (ananda is the Sanskrit term). This is not the strained happiness of advertising; it is not about showing all your polished teeth when you smile as a defense mechanism (the armoured smile of our age). It is about touching something that is both deep beneath and high above the currents of our time, and letting it support you as you wade through the treacherous waters. And it is this skillfulness, which I know to be fed by joy, that lets you offer another person a life raft when they need it.