At My Darkest Moment, I Reached Out for Help and Chose To Live

Image by Roy Scott/Getty Images/Ikon Images

Image by Roy Scott/Getty Images/Ikon Images

Is Mental Illness Having A #MeToo Moment?

Fifteen years ago, I broke up with my very nice boyfriend and plunged headlong into a dark depression. I loved Marc but had known from the beginning that he wasn't the man for me.

I still believe that breaking up was the right move, but I chose a bad time to do it. I was between jobs and felt adrift. I was applying for a more permanent immigration visa (I'm from Canada – and, yes, Canadians need visas too) and it was a stressful and expensive process that made me question my legitimacy. I was on shaky ground emotionally and financially. Marc tried to persuade me to get married to stabilize my citizenship, but I didn't want to. That's how clear I was that the relationship needed to end.

I just didn't realize that by breaking up with him at this unsure moment in my life I was essentially cutting the guy wires of my mental health.

It was a terrifying time, and even today I'm very glad that I came through it alive. I'm often amazed that I feel a basic sense of contentment about my life now. It could easily have been otherwise.

All of this came rushing back to me last Saturday. In the wake of Anthony Bourdain's death the day before, my Facebook feed was flooded with stories from friends and acquaintances expressing their struggles with depression and very close calls with suicide. I had no idea there were so many people like me all around. It felt like the beginnings of a #metoo moment for those of us who have spent time in this frightening landscape. After reading so many stories of people struggling to feel acceptable and worthy, what had seemed like an outlier experience started to seem more ordinary than remarkable. So many of us have #beenthere.

I noticed that the stories in my Facebook feed were from people who had otherwise done well in their lives. They had completed college; they had careers and families; they had traveled. Some of these people I knew outside of Facebook. I would have never guessed how much despair they had lived through.

One acquaintance, Marni Sclaroff, a yoga teacher and mother in Reston, Va., posted a photo of the scars on her wrists where she cut herself for years, starting at age 15. She was also hospitalized. "My depression was existential," she wrote, adding that she came from a supportive family. "I remember, in first grade, struggling to understand what the point was."

Another friend, Ralph De La Rosa, a social worker in Brooklyn, NY, shared that he spent twenty years, from age 8 to 28, thinking of killing himself as a result of early experiences of neglect and bullying.

“No one wants to kill themselves. Ever. They just want the pain to stop.”

-Ralph De La Rosa, social worker

Both Marni and Ralph also shared how they got through these times. Marni wrote that hospitalization and family support helped her, and ultimately she found strength and a sense of purpose in a daily practice of yoga. "It taught me how to inhabit my body, and to love it deeply," she wrote. "It taught me reverence for life, and that we are all connected."

And she wrote, "From my perspective, as someone who has lived through the fire of suicidal depression, I think the way we are going to help people is by normalizing the conversation about it... We need more people who have been through it to speak."

Ralph's turnaround came after he developed a heroin addiction, and a girlfriend kept insisting that he get treatment. At 29 he finally went into rehab where a committed counselor helped him find his way. He got off heroin and stopped wanting to die.

He wrote: "No one wants to kill themselves. Ever. They just want the pain to stop. Feeling heard and receiving compassionate attention can do just that."

When suicide is in the news, instead of expressing sympathy for celebrities we don't know, Ralph suggested that we reach out to the weirdos or seeming outsiders in our immediate circles. Even if their actions at times confuse us, we can try go beyond our comfort zones. Let them know, "I'm here and ready to listen for once, whenever you're ready.'"

I've identified as one of these weirdos for much of my life. I'd always had different aspirations than my working class family. I came to the U.S. by myself without financial help and when I didn't move back to Canada, my family seemed to step back even further.

Even though my friends didn't quite know how to help me through my depression, if it hadn't been for one of them who took me in at a crucial moment, I might not have made it through the breakup alive.

I had already been in therapy for several years at the time. I was smart enough to get treatment for what I thought of as a tendency towards melancholy, but I had stopped taking medication. I hated the label "depressed." I hated the stigma of both my condition and its cure. I had learned, as I became a poet and a writer, that my sensitivity could also be an asset. I didn't want to label it as something to be gotten rid of. But I had no idea how dangerously I was weakening my already delicate support network by refusing medication as I was breaking up with Marc.

I tried to lean on friends. Those who wanted to help — and there were only a few — had no idea how to. "Could you just call me once a day?" I asked, knowing I was asking a lot. For me, contact once in twenty-four hours was still starvation rations, but it was better than the alternative — no contact at all in the many minutes and hours that comprised each long dark day and long dark night.

“Depression talks to you — but it lies to you... What that little voice is telling you to do is not true.”

-Nicole Lewis-Keeber, psychotherapist

One friend called me for two days in a row, then skipped a day, called on the fourth day and then the eighth day. Then the calls stopped. It was clearly too much. It was just too strange, too uncomfortable. And I wasn't getting better.

At my therapist's urging, I went back on antidepressants. But the initial onset of the drugs, which can take three or four weeks to take full effect, made me so anxious I wanted to crawl out of my own skin. One hot Saturday night as I managed to teach my regularly scheduled yoga class, I found myself scratching my arms to keep from having a full-blown panic attack. The idea formed in my addled brain that I should jump off the nearby bridge.

"A lot of mental health conditions speak to you," says Nicole Lewis-Keeber, a psychotherapist and business coach who I interviewed. "OCD talks to you, anxiety talks to you, depression talks to you — but it lies to you. When you're struggling like this, you feel less understood and less able to get help because no one is talking about it. But what that little voice is telling you to do is not true."

After class, I paged my therapist. Under normal circumstances the friendly parting words of my yoga students might have helped me to feel connected and purposeful. This night they did not touch me. I needed serious help. My therapist called fifteen minutes later. He told me if I couldn't wait until our next appointment my only option was to check myself into the nearest hospital.

When I thought of getting on the busy Saturday night subway and checking myself into Bellevue, the public hospital where he worked, I hesitated. I knew what happened in locked wards. Or I thought I did. I'd read many stories of writers who had been admitted to mental health institutions both voluntarily and involuntarily. Sometimes those visits had been necessary but they were never good.

Instead, I called my friend Madeline. Luckily for me, she was home. She had some friends over and they were watching a movie. I should come, she said. I called a car before I could change my mind and follow the call of the bridge. I headed to Queens.

I knew some of the people at Madeline's but by then I also knew that the state I was in would make them uncomfortable. I wanted to hide it. But — luckily again— the movie had started and all I had to do was sit down and watch.

I huddled on the floor, away from the others, hugging my knees to my chest and stared at the screen. I watched with such intensity that I could have burned a hole through the TV. I will never again be able to watch Spirited Away without re-experiencing the physical sensation of fighting for my life. I focused with every cell of my being. I was not going to Bellevue. I was not going to the Williamsburg bridge. I was going to focus with all my might so that the unreasonable and unrelenting thoughts in my head and the jumpy, restless sensations in my body would have to move into the background, even one moment at a time.

“Everyone goes through difficult times. The question is, are they connected enough to get through it?”

-W.S., a suicide hotline worker

It's not just the mentally weak who are at risk for severe depression, as people often think. A perfect storm of experiences can make anyone vulnerable, says W.S., who works at Samaritans, New York City's oldest and largest suicide prevention hotline (NPR agreed to withhold his name for safety concerns). He told me, "Everyone goes through difficult times and multiple problems at the same time, even multiple traumas. The question is, are they connected enough to get the things they need to get through it? Do they have a good support network? People get through difficult times when they are connected."

Life is rarely as straightforward as we would like it to be. While I was depressed, my boyfriend was calling me several times a day, both to check in on me and to convince me not to end our relationship. I tried to stay away from him — I didn't want to break up twice — but I had to admit that his care was helping me. I was desperate for anyone to care, even this person I felt I should let go of. This continued for several months. In that time, the medication kicked in, my mental state stabilized, I landed a great new job — which felt like nothing short of a miracle — and was granted the immigration visa I had applied for.

After another several months, I found the courage to end the relationship without ending my own life. A very new, very different chapter of my life began.

It had required Herculean strength to choose, moment by moment, to live during that dark period. Even after I made it to safety, the experience remained very frightening and also difficult to explain. But it had been burned into me. If you've never been clinically depressed the condition makes no sense. It defies logic. But if you have been, you never forget.

In time, I decided to go off medication, fully aware of the risks and to the dismay of my therapist. I recognize that's not the best choice for many people. But it turned out okay for me. Eventually, I started a meditation practice that has become a profound source of connection and inner stability.

But I also know now that if I'm feeling shaky — as I did writing this essay and recalling that scary time a decade and a half ago — to ask friends, many friends, multiple friends to connect with me, even for a few minutes. I know not to give up until I get the connection I need, and not to be ashamed for asking. Connection can come from anywhere and it makes all the difference. There is nothing worse than suffering in silence and isolation. Not when your very life is at stake. #BeenThere

You Are Not Alone

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Leaving Rio: Why I Had to Go


Now that my time in Rio is coming to an end people are asking me whether I really want to go. “Don’t you want to stay longer? Overstay your visa! You could teach English!”

It’s been 2 ½ months—June, July, and half of August. I’ve lived in two apartments in the colonial neighborhood of Santa Teresa perched on a steep, cobblestoned hill in Rio de Janeiro. I also traveled in the Amazon for three weeks. Many people would not want the adventure to end. But I do.

I came to Brazil to change my perspective. I knew I couldn’t do it if I stayed in New York. I needed to know that life was more than just work. After fifteen years of surviving in the Big Apple, many of my ideas about well-being revolved around working. But my life, organized to the minute — so that I could include personal projects and a social life, as well as my job as an editor — has been feeling wrong for some time. It felt like I’d gotten off at the wrong station. It was time to get on a different train.

View from Santa Teresa over downtown to Guanabara Bay

View from Santa Teresa over downtown to Guanabara Bay

I knew Brazil—especially Rio—could help me with this. The most important thing in Rio is one’s connections to other people; it’s about having fun (with people) and enjoying life (with other people). It’s definitely not about work. Sunday nights are bigger party nights than Saturdays: people celebrate hard on their last free night before Monday. And, while people seemed to be constantly hustling up work, no one I met in Rio had a steady job.

Brazil is famous for being the land of alegria. Nothing is a problem. Don’t have a friend? No problem: go to the corner bar and within the hour you’ll have a few. They’ll make your evening fun, they’ll invite you to eat at their house, and when you meet on the street afterwards they’ll greet you with impossibly warm and open smiles. You’ll feel like family.

Don’t know your way around the city? No problem. Cariocas will instruct you on the best places to go and anyone overhearing the conversation will give their opinions. Can’t speak Portuguese? No problem. People will band together to communicate with you. No stress! Don’t worry!

This “no stress” attitude means that plans are unnecessary. Three hours late for a dinner party? No problem. Forget to call your friends? No problem. Stuck in traffic? No problem. Land of happiness, land of alegria. I even saw a woman walking down my street with a T-shirt that said “NO stress” (in English) yesterday.

I just met this guy

I just met this guy

And once you connect with people the warmth is genuine. Brazilians will stick around to help you solve whatever problem you’re having (bus didn’t stop for you, can’t find a street, don’t understand something etc). They will lend you money no questions asked, give you a ride far out of their way, make you food at any time of the day or night, let you cut in line.

In fact, friends of friends will be assigned to pick you up at the airport or entertain you for an afternoon if your one friend in Brazil is not available. They don’t mind extending this exceptional hospitality. Most Americans (and Canadians) would find it absurd and imposing; they would resent it.. But Brazilians like it. They become instant family. And they remember you like a dear friend. Next time they see you, they will give you a warm kiss on each cheek and stop whatever they are doing to speak few tender words. There’s never a rush. They’re never too busy to talk.

This (along with the music, the dance, and the hilarious commentary on day-to-day life) is what Brazil does exceptionally well. And it’s this I wanted more of. Brazil has helped open me up to a whole different way of living, with more ginga (swing in your game), more sensuality (I like the extra bum exposure on the beach, and the men’s bikini, the sunga) and a less Puritan morality. More alegria, less worry. As a chronic worrier, all this has helped me a lot over time.

Leaving Rio-Why I had to go Author Joelle Hann 3.jpg

But there’s another side to this wonderful carinho (tender warmth). And it’s this other side that really bothered me this time in Brazil. The other side of alegria is tristeza—sadness—and there is plenty of crying going on in Brazil, especially in Rio. For good reason, because things aren’t safe, there’s very little accountability (from organizations or individuals), and when things go wrong there’s no recourse.

You have to apply a jeito—a work-around—to deal with the multiple maddening problems that come up in a day, for issues as small as buying a certain kind of hook to hang your hammock to rather larger ones like what to do when your house is on fire.

Here’s a minor but good example: when my Carioca friend discovered a match-stick in his feijão (stewed black beans) he didn’t complain to the waiter. What was the point? he said, it wouldn’t change anything. He had lived in New York for ten years and knew what I was thinking. But he did make a little chorinho—a little sob story—for extra beans. And the waiter brought them, kindly, as if he was doing Daniel a personal favor. In Brazil, you have to know how to play the game.

Daniel, philosophical after finding a match in his feijao

Daniel, philosophical after finding a match in his feijao

I didn’t realize when I went to Brazil how profoundly this particular tristezais a part of the culture. I didn’t realize how deep it ran. This tristeza is erratic by nature and so it put me up against my own need for order. The casual attitude towards important things put me up against my tendency to worry, and the general lack of accountability made me scared for my day-to-day safety. I found it hard to roll with things— to be enrolando, “in the rolling,” as Cariocas are—even after a couple of months in Brazil.

I felt this keenly on my last day in Rio when I finally went up the PãoD’Acúcar, the Sugarloaf, a 1,300 foot rock accessed by a cable car that can take 65 people at a time up to a spectacular viewing area.

The thing I really noticed other than the breathtaking view was that I felt safe. I wasn’t afraid that the cables would snap, that someone would fall out of the bondinho (cable car) or off the top of the rocks. It felt like a first world experience. And this was a tremendous relief. I worried about safety constantly as I walked through the city streets of Rio.

View of Rio from Sugarloaf

View of Rio from Sugarloaf

Most of the time in Brazil, I was not so much afraid of being robbed as I was afraid to do simple things such as walk on the sidewalk. In Santa Teresa, the sidewalk was so narrow that every few feet I had to step off into traffic. There were also unavoidable obstacles like poles in the middle of the sidewalk that had to be sidestepped, and parked cars, or mounds of uncollected garbage. (Not to mention the ever-present clumps of dog poop.)

Wires hang down at head-height

Wires hang down at head-height

Wires hung down dangerously from telephone and power lines over the sidewalk. They dangled at head-height and were hard to see in the bright sun and the dark rain.

The traffic coming around every corner was fast, erratic, and fearless. Motorbikes avoiding the tram tracks would come within inches of the sidewalk (that you might just be about to step off to avoid a pole, for example). Buses routinely came so close that they ripped off the rear-view mirrors of parked cars. Cars played chicken with pedestrians—not out of malice, out of habit.

City buses shook so violently I was afraid I’d bite my own tongue, my teeth chattering around in my head uncontrollably. The buses clogged the streets and competed with each other for degrees of recklessness. One driver told a friend who got on with her 5-year old daughter to hold on—and before he had even closed the door, the bus was careening down the cobblestones at top speed like the apocalypse was coming.

And it’s not like the roads, tracks, or cars are well-maintained. A tragic example is what happened to Santa Teresa’s beloved bonde (streetcar) last year. A charming last vestige of old-time Rio, the signature yellow, single-car train connected the various areas of the hilly, colonial neighborhood and crossed the old aqueduct down in the city proper, ending up in the beautiful Jardim Bôtanico, the city’s famous botanical gardens. On August 27, 2011, the bonde lost control on its way down to Lapa, smashing into a pole, killing the conductor and 5 passengers and injuring 51 other people.

Beloved Santa Teresa, facing Cine Santa, the adorable cinema; also see the bonde tracks, narrow sidewalks, and racing van

Beloved Santa Teresa, facing Cine Santa, the adorable cinema; also see the bonde tracks, narrow sidewalks, and racing van

The extra tragic part is that it was avoidable. Everyone knew the bonde and its tracks needed maintenance. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before something bad happened. There was a lot of talk about it. But as political discussions continued, people continued to ride, overloading the tram as usual. Nothing was done. Then— the worst thing possible happened. Now people are dead and there’s no more bonde.

So I adjust the motto of Brazil as land of alegria. I’ve come to call it land of “alegria now, chorinho later.” This lack of accountability and action, this disposition of “oh well” proves itself to be charming and relaxed in the moment, but dangerous and reckless in the long-term. Engage any Brazilian (at the corner bar, of course, that’s where things get worked out) in this subject and they will agree, nodding and saying, e uma locura, it’s a madness. (But you’ll see those same people doing the alegria thing themselves soon enough.)

Another maddening aspect of Brazilian culture is a lack of respect for other people, especially when it comes to public space. This is pretty puzzling for a culture that puts so much emphasis on relationships, family, and social ease.

But I’ve spent hours and hours walking around downtown, Centro, looking for Rio’s impressive colonial churches and in all this time ambulating, it’s been normal for Brazilians to walk out in front of me and stand exactly in my way. They don’t have to do this. Then, they refuse to move as I am trying to figure out how to get around them. This happens not with malevolence, but with absolute indifference to my presence. I see other Brazilians on the sidewalk throw out their hands and say, “Poha!” Shit! with a gesture that’s says, ‘what the hell are you doing? Can’t you see I’m here?’ Even though they probably do the same thing themselves.

Igreja de Nossa Senora da Gloria do Outeiro 1714-1729

Igreja de Nossa Senora da Gloria do Outeiro 1714-1729

If you go to a shop and want to buy something, you will have to make your presence known. Even if you are standing at the counter. Even if you are the only customer there. Even if there are 10 people behind the counter, you will need to say, loudly, firmly, “bom dia,” good day, and then bark your order. It doesn’t feel right. But their main objective is not to serve you. You have to remind people that in order to buy the Band-Aids, you need to give them money. And they are the only ones who can take it from you.

They are also famous for playing boom-boxes, speakers, car stereos, or telenovelas (soap operas, a national passion) so loud that you can’t think straight, and they’ll do it right into their neighbor’s houses without a second thought to how it’s affecting anyone else. It’s enough to make otherwise patient adults—not to mention parents of young children—lose their minds.

But here’s the other thing: no one complains. Brazilians are so reluctant to give offense that they won’t say, “Yo, asshole, turn the motherfucking stereo off, it’s 3 a.m..” Or even, “would you mind turning down the music?”

Without protest or complaint, or even an ‘excuse me,’ Brazilians will shove and squeeze you out of the way as you are getting off airplanes, boats, buses and other forms of mass transportation. And then if anyone gets hurt in the process—if the delivery guy barrelling down the sidewalk with his huge cart overloaded with crates of beer or boxes of diapers gashes your thigh, for example, as he presses forward at a dangerous speed, or knocks over your 2-year old or your frail mother—he is terribly, terribly sorry, genuinely hurt and concerned on your behalf. It’s as if he had nothing to do with the situation.

Alegria now, chorinho later.” Everything is in the moment, at the moment. Worry about consequences later.

my friend Arjan — just a friend

my friend Arjan — just a friend

I noticed this fleeting urgency in my interactions with men. If a guy thought I was attractive, within an hour he would be trying to get me into a dark corner to make out. If I refused but gave him my info, he would inundate me with come-ons and invitations for the first few days, but if I happened to be busy right that moment (taking a Portuguese class or meeting up with another friend, for example) he would just give up. As far as I could tell, there was no such thing as a period of seduction or, even a period of dating. It was now or never; all or nothing. I found all these rituals startling, bordering on predatory, but for Cariocas they seemed normal: like if the guy didn’t try to kiss you at the end of a couple of rounds of forró (a country dance) then something was wrong.

Although the dating rituals were perplexing (I couldn’t see how anything more than a quick hook-up was possible in Rio), they were harmless. Things got scary when this lack of patience—fortitude, perseverance, or even focus— extended into services on which public safety depended.

One night, I came home from Bar do Gomes, my local and charming boteco (bar) around 1:30am and to my surprise,  I saw that the house next door was on fire. Helena, the woman I was renting from, was urgently calling the fire department. Her son, Rafael, and his friends were running out into the street, trying to get into the burning house. It was under renovation and no one lived there.

The boys managed to break in and douse the fire with bottled water. Then they found a n unconscious man, a worker on the house (one who had routinely played horrible radio stations at top volume, disturbing all of us). Helena drove off to get the house’s owner.

Neighbors had spilled out into the street and started a rumor that the man had snuck into the house to kill himself. At great personal risk, the boys dragged the half-unconscious guy into the street.  They shook him by his arms and legs, trying to rouse him from a smoke-induced coma.

A long time had passed without any sign of the police or fire department. It was about 40 minutes later when the police arrived—slowly, and clearly annoyed to have been roused from sleep. They sauntered over to the comatose man and yanked him up from the cobblestones where they boys had laid him. The boys rushed in to protest. The policeman, aggravated, pulled his gun.

Helena, having arrived back with the owner’s lover, appeared in the street, shouting, “Amigos de Rafael, sai da rua! Sai! Vai na casa!” Friends of Rafael get out of the street! Get back into the house!

She could see the situation spinning out of control. She’d rather that the police kill this already half-dead man than pull the trigger on one of her sons’s friends—who had gotten too involved by challenging the police. I thought I was going to witness the kind of stupid murder we all saw in the movie, “City of God,” about the out-of-control drug trade and police corruption in Rio.

the fire dept finally arrives

the fire dept finally arrives

Meanwhile a sluggish and reluctant fire truck appeared at the end of the street. It has been almost an hour since Helena had called. The station was only 10 minutes away. The truck turned in where cars were clustered on the sidewalk. The L-shaped street had another entrance—as the firefighters must have known—very close by and it was free of parked vehicles. But instead the firefighters waited for the neighbors to move their cars, slowly, one by one.

Meanwhile the fire in the house had re-ignited and thicker, greedier flames were shooting out of the second story windows. Those of us on the street stood with our mouths agape. “E uma locura!” Said a girl next to me. “What are they doing!!??” I asked. “Nao sei,” someone said, “I don’t know.” No one knew. It was a warm night but I was shivering with anxiety. It wasn’t even my property but I felt extremely unprotected.

“And this guy, if he wanted to kill himself, why didn’t he do it some normal way, with a knife or a rope? “ said a woman standing next to me.

“He wanted to make a show,” said Helena. “Burning down someone else’s house. Incrível.” Incredible.

When the bombeiros finally got up in front of the burning house, they were in no rush to put out the fire. They didn’t try to prevent the boys from continuing to run in with their water bottles. There was not even a gesture towards crowd control. The firemen were very casual about arranging their gear. They were dressed in clothes from another era that looked like they should be in a museum.

The men slowly hooked up the hose on the truck and slowly turned on the water. But when they unspooled the hose and walked towards the burning house — the hose was too short.

Meanwhile, the ambulance that had arrived did not administer aid to the comatose man (who was now more conscious and looked drugged up). Instead, the man was handcuffed and left in the back of the police cruiser while the cops —about 10 of them—stood around and shot the shit.

I stood in the street, watching helplessly. I was shaking all over. I couldn’t sleep after the fire was out and the firefighters and the police with their suspect had departed.

However, even more suprising, the next night when I related the story to locals at Bar do Gomes, no one thought it was shocking. They looked at me blankly. It was as if I had a problem. Silly, gringa, I didn’t understand that this was normal.

“There is no help. If anything happens here,  I am responsible for the situation, for this house, for everyone,” Helena said the next day. “If I don’t put the fire out next door, then my house gets damaged and no one will solve that for me. If there is trouble in the street, I have to deal with it. There is no security, no safety, no guarantees. This is Brazil. It’s all a big mess.”

I imagined what it must be like owning a house in Rio. It made me very tense.

(Ten days later, one of Brazil’s biggest art collectors lost his entire personal collection in an apartment fire. It took the fire department an hour to get the ladder up.)

All of these things happened in Rio de Janeiro, a big world-class city with a lot of educated people and established infrastructure, a city that is preparing to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.

So just imagine how wild, raw, and lawless other parts of Brazil can be.  In remote areas—from the Amazon to the northeast, for example—long-distance passenger buses are routinely held up and robbed, Wild West style. If someone is killed in the Amazon—in a misunderstanding, a drunken brawl, a land dispute, for example—the dead just disappear.

Kimberly and Cece

Kimberly and Cece

My ex-pat friends in Rio are used to living on Brazil’s shaky foundation. It seems that their passion for Brazil outweighs their frustration with the infrastructure or any fear for themselves. I applaud that. Maybe if I had moved to Brazil at the peak of my own passion I wouldn’t mind the difficulties so much, either.

Now that I’m back in North America, feeling safe, clean, protected, and more-or-less understood, I do miss that Brazilian ginga. I miss that extra spice that makes people want to stay forever in “the marvelous city.” I miss the warmth and the permissiveness and the humor of Brazilians, how there’s always a way, always a work-around, and no favor is too big or small to ask for. Rules, schedules, and protocols get to feeling very restrictive and unfriendly here in the north; they are more concerned with maintaining a cold bureaucracy than with fostering human joy. Life on a schedule, I now realize, is half a life.



But one thing I have left Brazil with is the knowledge that in New York I live with a lot of security, a lot of safety. I didn’t know this before. I live with the knowledge that if I need an ambulance, an ambulance will come. Fast. And first-responders will treat me no matter what my race or income. And that is a very, very nice thing.

Luke, teaching English to a bar owner who prefers to feed him triple-decker sandwiches!

Luke, teaching English to a bar owner who prefers to feed him triple-decker sandwiches!

So I need to wait before I got back to Brazil again. I have to wait until I again reach the point where I’ve taken my day-to-day safety for granted or begin to feel frustrated with America’s Puritan mindset, or slip back into my tendency to overwork.

I have to wait until I forget how nice it is to have very safe and clean streets, clean water,  fellow citizens who make an effort to look out for my well-being, to accommodate for me in public space, friends who make (and keep) plans, and a first-world fire-station right around the corner.

Last lunch in Rio: tchau, ridiculous and marvelous city!

Last lunch in Rio: tchau, ridiculous and marvelous city!


Sweaty and Silent in the Amazon


It’s been painful, but I’ve finally broken in. I didn’t know what was breaking—or what needed to be broken—but it happened in the Amazon. I guessed that something was up, but the roar was so deafening I could barely make out what was happening. The change was confirmed the moment I set foot back in Rio de Janeiro. Here, where life is clearly cultured and (more or less) civilized, I could finally see, feel, and hear that I had been through something big. Something had to give—and something gave.

I traveled in the Amazon solo for almost 3 weeks. Since then, I’ve been spending long stretches of time in Rio—alone, too. Like, days at a time. This is not normal for me. I like to have people around, know that I can call someone, meet up for a beer, coffee, yoga class, chit chat whathaveyou.

In New York, I’m a text pro. I love getting and sending little messages, little reminders that people are out there, that *I’m* out there. Of course I have email and Facebook here, but most of my friends have been leaving me alone—not quite able to get over the *idea* that I am so far away. Communication with my normal life has been limited.

Traveling only in Portuguese—very intermediate level Portuguese, I have to tell you—meant there was a lot I couldn’t say. There was a lot I couldn’t understand, either. Eventually, painfully, I got used to expecting that I wouldn’t understand most of what was said to me. Or that I could say anything close to what I meant to express. No nuance, subtlety, or humor. I would go for a very long time, it seemed, saying things like, “How much does this cost?” “Where does the bus to X stop?” “Can I see the menu?” It’s not enough to make a person feel like a full member of society.

It was hard to get used to feeling like an imbecile, an outsider. Several places I traveled had no tourists at all, certainly no one who spoke English. I felt almost mute, my capacity for complex thought and speech dulled to the point of absurdity.

I was spending more and more time in silence. My cheekbones began to ache from spending too long in the same position.

Brazilians were patient with me. They were even fascinated that I would try to learn their language. Without exception, they think that their language is very difficult to learn. Conjugating the verbs is mind-scrambling. Learning the gender of nouns (and their adjectives and articles) is akin to learning to type on the QWERTY keyboard—at some point you just have to dive in blind and make lots and lots of mistakes. It’s impossible to memorize.

Brazilians also have a lot of different words for everything, a lot of slang and informal expressions. So whatever you learned in language school really might not be relevant on the street.

I’ve had the Portuguese-is-very-hard-to-learn conversation with almost every single person I’ve met in Brazil from friends to strangers to some passing dude at the bar, in Rio to Santarem to Mossoro and beyond. But I wouldn’t say it was harder then French, and certainly not harder than Russian or Japanese.

It’s just that living in another language is hard. Not just saying hello and thank you, but having a complete life in another language.

Negotiating every day life and the intricacies of travel in a very strong and wild place was even harder, I think. It was tough, like grating an old dry root with a rusty knife. It was work. And it seemed to yield so little. Sometimes I could tell that people had decided before I opened my mouth that they couldn’t understand me. And that didn’t help.

sweaty and silent in the Amazon

sweaty and silent in the Amazon

Sometimes people were incredulous that I spoke at all, like the middle-aged Carioca (someone from Rio) I met on a guided hike in the Amazon who exclaimed, “Ela fala!!” (she speaks!) when I greeted her and her husband with a general “bom dia.” (Although so few Americans speak any other language but English that it’s easy to understand her surprise.)

Everyone without exception—from fellow traveler to waiter to hotel proprietor to tour guide to ferry captain to river-dweller said my Portuguese was really good. But judging from how isolated I felt inside my language-skills, I did not agree.

Every day there came a moment when I needed to stop trying. I needed to let all the fun/exasperation of learning and the effort of communicating slip past me in a gentle burble of crescendoing and decrescendoing cadences. It can be a very sing-songy language.

I would crawl into my hammock and turn on my iPhone to read e-books by John McPhee. (My “Nook” and its entire library of travel reading was stolen in Ilha de Marajo, probably by someone who thought it was a much sexier iPad.) I’d block out everything else. Portuguese became background noise, like the wind in the trees, peppered with occasional guffaws of laughter and the clinking of ice cubes in caipirinhas.

Reading in my native tongue gave my overworked brain a moment to normalize. It was deeply gratifying. I felt human there. It turns out that I’m very attached to being able to communicate. To other people.

Of course, I’ve always talked to myself as most people do (though I try to be aware of this and not move my lips). And as someone who writes, I’m always making mental notes. But this was a much, much deeper level of conversation-with-self that I was comfortable with.

This was myself divided into the person who spoke, listened, acted, and responded, and the person who commented on how weird this all was. The person who commented was getting a much bigger role these days. I mean, isn’t it absurd to say that you “drink a bath” when what you mean is you “take a shower”?

Or how about when something doesn’t work, you say, “nao combina” or “nao da”—it doesn’t combine, it doesn’t give. Or that “vipee” means an exclusive section (of a boat or a club or a bus)–a Portuguese-ification  of “V.I.P.” But V.I.P.—very important person— does not, can not, exist in Portuguese. You just have to know this.

So it wasn’t just that I didn’t know the words, didn’t have the vocabulary, or couldn’t conjugate. It was that I had no idea where people were coming from. I was oriented in the wrong direction, without a clue. I was mystified, baffled, blind-folded.

And then there were the experiences—the hotel manager in Santarem who went out of his way to get a taxi for me, and then grabbed my ass as I got into it; the drunk university students from Sao Paulo who had noisy sex on the small boat we our NGO group was traveling on; the native boy who broke his shin bone playing soccer in the dusk in a remote community on the Rio Ararpiuns—on a Sunday when all the radio operators were off having dinner with their families.

All these things largely stayed inside since I had a hard time discussing them in my fumbling Portuguese.

Sweaty and Silent in the Amazon Author Joelle Hann 2.jpg

I’m good at coping—excellent at it (my therapist would agree!)—and so I got by. It wasn’t the end of the world. I was meeting people anyway, I was having experiences. I was (more or less) safe. I wouldn’t be traveling in the Amazon for that long, after all. It was likely I would spend most of the rest of my life in English, my language.

But the silence inside me grew.

So did my knowledge of John McPhee’s oeuvre.

So did my risk-taking.

I said more, right or wrong, and hoped for the best. I started to care much less about being thoughtful, about having meaningful conversations. To communicate a few basic opinions about the medicinal trees on our hike became exciting. A couple of comments on Brazilian food or politics made me feel positively human.

(Though sometimes after being silent for a very long while, words in any language came out wrong, like I’d forgotten how to speak.)

What took so long to change was being comfortable living in this internal world of my own commentary—without anyone to share it with immediately and get relief from the absurdity and frustrations of so many situations.

Living alone with myself, deeply alone, with only my own company, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, relating my trials and triumphs to myself. This was work that was scouring my insides.

The enormity of what I was experiencing in the Amazon far outstripped the capacity of email or Facebook as modes of expression. Plus,  the Internet didn’t work during the rain storms, and there were rainstorms every day. The winds kicked out phone lines, cash machines—anything that relied on a signal, for hours and days at a time. The one day I wrote a long blog post I felt fantastic for the entire day. Ecstatic. Tremendously relieved. Otherwise, I was alone in my travels, alone in my language, alone in myself. Together in myself, alone.

Until I wasn’t. And that’s what changed today, when I noticed that I’d spent the entire day alone, and most of yesterday and the day before that. And for the first time, I felt quite content. I didn’t feel on the fringes, I didn’t feel cast out. My Portuguese has improved a lot, that’s true. People who I’d only spoken English to before I left for the Amazon now speak to me in Portuguese—with all my mistakes, but so be it.

Today, too, I went to a traveler’s clinic in Rio to get my cranky gut checked out. I did the entire visit in Portuguese, even though there were many many words I didn’t know. Somehow I just open my eyes really wide and let all the sounds rush into my face. I know that sounds weird, but that’s what it feels like: I make my face porous and I try really hard not to think. Then, I understand.

But it hasn’t improved *that* much. I’m still very far from fluent. And some days I just feel very lazy about all this effort. I don’t even try to speak Portuguese without a gringo accent. I don’t even get worked up about the darned verbs.

But most of all—more than this—is that I now understand what had to change.

Sweaty and Silent in the Amazon Author Joelle Hann 3.jpg

For years now, my life has been increasingly focused on the external—on other people, the demands of my job (in which I take care of other people’s books and projects), relationships (focused on other people), socializing (other people), the worry about being included or not being included (others).

Drawn so far outside of myself, I could not hear the internal conversation very well. I had kept a journal since I was 14, but in the last year or two that had begun to be less and less of a priority. I’d lost the itch for this private conversation. It used to be critical to my sense of well-being. Living, traveling and roughing it in the Amazon in Portuguese threw me back in touch with this long-neglected creature, this space of reflection and companionship.

I have to say, it feels really great! I suffered so much while traveling but the contentedness now is so sweet that all the turmoil seems worth it.

And while I *could* go to the adorable and much-beloved local botequim next door, Bar do Gomes, tonight and have adventurous (and very imperfect) conversations, I’m staying in writing this. And feeling fine. Even knowing that tomorrow all the things I need to do require more solitude as well.

My reluctance to go deep inside appears to be over. Maybe I had thought, like my poetry, it wasn’t there anymore. That there was no there there. The there was the there of my youth. I hadn’t realized it had gone missing. Or that if missing, it could come back. It feels like I’m back to where I started from: in that place of deep listening that the poets know.

Here’s what Katy Poole, a Jyotish practitioner (Vedic science of the stars) wrote today on Facebook—so beautiful because it applies perfectly:

“Today the Moon is transiting Shravana, the Listening Stars. The tree full of ears. The inner voice. The prophetic vision. The revelation. Open your ears. And listen.”

My ruling planet is Shravana. I’ve been away a long time.

Sweaty and Silent in the Amazon Author Joelle Hann 4.jpg


In the Amazon, the Insects Love Me


I’ve been in the Amazon two weeks now—it’s a wild place. Rough, tough, with an edge of violence. Even its insects are aggressive. I’ve been suffering from all kinds of insect attacks—and mosquitoes are only the beginning.

My first day on Ilha de Marajó, where the police ride water buffalo (no kidding), I went without bug repellent—July is the low season for mosquitoes, and they weren’t bothering me particularly. I ate dinner at a beach shack blasting telenovelas (soap operas) the only restaurant open near my isolated pousada. I even stayed outside reading into the evening without any kind of protection. I had some lofty idea about building up antibodies by allowing a few critters to gnaw at me for a while.

Needless to say, within a few hours my pale, North American limbs were dotted with red spots every centimeter. They would have made a perfect poster for DEET: “Don’t mess with the Amazon, kids, or this could happen to you!”

I was soon taking tumeric (to counter inflammation) and applying tea-tree oil to the bites (a strategy recommended by Carmen, an Italian woman I met in Belém) making me smell like a cross between a curry and a dentist’s office.

Then I arrived in Santarém, a small river city on the Amazon about equidistant from Belém and Manaus. I stayed in the cheapest recommended hotel near the busy waterfront, Hotel Brasil. My room had a cheap lock on the door, and its polyester sheets looked like they had not seen the laundry in months. The mattress had about the same comfort as an old chewy pancake.

The room had a window and a fan, but somehow still no air. The next day, after hardly sleeping for the heat and the mosquitoes, the back of my left arm had an odd bumpy texture. I felt along it with my right hand. What was this?? Then I looked—completely chewed up. Gross. I suspected the mattress. For sure, it was a breeding ground. Fleas? Or some Amazonian species of noxious bug?

So there I was with my lumpy arms and my red Dalmatian legs strolling along the river-front of Santarém. Ah, life in the Amazon was good. I ate my packet of fried bananas (they were stale), bought from a grumpy lady in a headscarf, and drank a fresh coconut juice from a woman who could hardly interrupt her gossiping to attend to me. Wasn’t traveling great! This was the life!

Just then a Peruvian clown, also staying at Hotel Brasil, recognized me. He came over. He was so poor that he hesitated to pay the R$2 ($1 US) for a fresh coconut juice.

We walked out onto a floating dock where locals were fishing under the full moon, throwing the silver fish into the middle of the dock.

“How old do you think I am?” he asked. Juan Carlos had traveled from Lima to the Brazilian Amazon, selling bracelets and earrings to make money along the way. He hung them on a black cloth stretched over a wooden frame. He also juggled plastic pins at traffic intersections while drivers waited for the light to turn. Both earned him a few reals, pennies really. Brasil, a nation on the rise, has become expensive.

“Uh… 40.” I said, sort of annoyed at his question.

“Nossa!” he exclaimed, “Not that old! I’m 38!” But pretty close, I thought. Life on the road hadn’t been super kind to Juan Carlos.

“No family, no place to call home?” I asked. With his dreads and slightly swollen face, he looked a bit worse for wear. He seemed to be sharing a room at Hotel Brasil with a hippie chick with a grim expression and dreadlocks held back under a bandana. She also sold jewelry. She never looked happy—or trustworthy. Perhaps she needed better drugs. Juan Carlos said she stole from him in Parantins, at the Boi Bumba festival. The room they split cost $15 US. Not a whole lot to squabble over.

The next day, I joined the NGO Saude é Alegria (health and happiness) for a 4-day boat-tour of remote communities on the Rio Ararpiuns. We crossed the Amazon and the Tapajós rivers to reach the arching Ararpiuns. I was now living completely in Portuguese. People kept saying how good my Portuguese was, but I could not communicate complex ideas and I couldn’t jump into conversations. It was very challenging. I was living in the realm of “the gist of things” with the vocabulary of a 7-year-old.

But even more challenging was trying to understand the mameluco —the river dwellers who are descendants of native people and escaped African slaves (caboclos are descendants of native people and Europeans, specific to the Amazon). Even the people from São Paulo (Paulistas) had trouble understanding them.

But everyone understood my bug bites. The bites drew comments. The weirdest of the bites happened near the village of Arimum. We were on a forest walk to look at medicinal trees. The next day I watched an enormous, bulbous blister grow on my left knee. It was like a bug had pitched camp and inflated its own command center there.

The blister was so weird and ugly that it even weirded-out the mameluco who’ve lived in the Amazon—with its birds, animals, fish and insects–for thousands of years. There was no medicinal tree, apparently, for me.

After much discussion, the local medicine woman and the head guy agreed that I had been bitten by a forest insect that lived in wet areas (everywhere, basically) called “taxí” (ta-shee). The bug’s tactic was to leave a trail of urine (“xixí”–shee-shee) so acidic that it literally burned the skin. What wasn’t blistering was angry and red, as though slashed with a hot iron.

It was gross, but it was fascinating. The locals and my NGO companions kept asking to look at it, staring with bulging eyes and mouths agape. Then they would invariably shake their heads, “Nossa Senhora!”

After two days of commentary, Nelso, the nice kind of head guy of the village of Atodí, who wore a knock-off Nike shirt, jean shorts, and bare feet, recommended gently puncturing it. He took a spiny needle from a nearby Amazonian tree. They were practically spitting out sharp needles.

“Is it clean?” I asked dubiously. Although this might not have been the right question. Maybe I should have asked, is it poison-free?

“Sure, sure it’s clean,” he said. “It’s from the forest.” In my book, this doesn’t count as clean. He wiped it on the ground. “Don’t worry.”

I sat on a concrete slab outside the newly constructed eco-tourism bathroom, and he knelt beside me with the forest needle and a ribbon of toilet paper. He punctured the bulb and gently squeezed the liquid out onto the absorbent paper. It didn’t hurt but the blister also didn’t want to drain. Command center was not about to evacuate.

After several minutes, a small crowd was gathering. “It will fill up again,” Nelso said, touching the tender red areas carefully. “But puncture it again and it will drain completely the second time.” He shook my hand to say goodbye without looking me in the eye. I wasn’t sure if this was local custom– habitual shyness–or if he was completely disgusted.

I returned to Santarém and the bug infested hotel—this time armed with a hammock that I strung up between the walls. Before bed I slathered on anti-bacterial cream and hosed myself down with bug spray. Then I slept with the windows open and a thin sarong completely pulled up, even over my head, in spite of the heat. The last frontier might just possibly be my face. No way was I going to wake up looking like Elephant Man.

After surviving the mosquitoes, fleas or miscellaneous jungle-bugs, Peruvian clowns, and taxí, I decided to head to Alter do Chão, a little beach town, for a few days of R & R.

There I met up with Ana who I’d met on the NGO adventure. She’d encountered Marcos, a lonely Paulista, at our pousada. Together we hired Raimundo and his boat to go an hour across the Rio Tapajós to visit Dona Rosalinda.

Dona Rosalinda is a different kind of river dweller—she lives in the river not alongside it. Her house is on stilts. Part of the year is it almost underwater (though in recent years, it has been partially submerged as the water levels have risen. She copes by lifting everything–sofas, beds, tables– up onto temporary wooden beams).

Raimundo’s boat pulled up to Dona Rosalinda’s door, and—braless and almost toothless after a whole life spent there raising 10 children—she came out to help us tie the boat. Her 9-year-old granddaughter, Eloise, dressed in a pink dress and pigtails, bounced along behind her.

We weren’t there for 10 minutes before Dona Rosalinda noticed my damaged left leg. “O que isso?” What’s this? She said looking a bit horrified. Ana, taking pity on my Portuguese, explained: It was the work of a forest bug that left a trail of piss that burned her leg….

Dona Rosalinda went to get a needle and rubbing alcohol. In a scene that was starting to feel familiar, we gathered around my grotesque knee and the commentary began.

“Never seen anything like it!” exclaimed Dona Rosalinda.

“Didn’t know it was possible!” said Raimundo.

“What a sight!” said Marcos.

Dona Rosalinda handed me the needle. I punctured the bulb. It had, as Nelso said, risen up again, though not as far. As before, it didn’t want to drain. Big tears of liquid formed and slowly dropped down my leg.

Dona Rosalinda asked to take a turn with the needle. She leaned in close, and with a shaky hand, stabbed away. I got the feeling she enjoyed it.

We stood around for a long time, watching the blister’s water plop down my leg. Then we got in the canoe and Eloise piloted us through the half-submerged forest (sometimes called the Enchanted Forest) crashing into spiny trees and thwacking us with low-hanging branches.

“Cuidad, Eloise! Tem pessoas atras!” said Raimundo was was paddling at the back. “Careful of the people behind you!”

The canoe, with 5 people on board, sat low in the water. Ana was afraid that a jacaré (cayman) would swim up into our laps. Marcos was afraid of swimming snakes, cobras in the water. We saw a sloth descending a tree, quite quickly for a sloth, and several birds, large and small, bright blue, black, and bright yellow. Eloise talked nonstop. It began to rain.

Dona Rosalinda invited us to stay for lunch since it was now pouring. She threw 5 small fish on her makeshift barbecue—metal skewers over bricks—including a piranha that she fed to the dog, Poeta. Eloise made instant rice in a small dark kitchen. Dessert was guava paste in condensed milk on toothpicks. After, we sat in the living room that was plastered with glossy posters of Virgin Mary festivals. Arrangements of plastic flowers sat on piles of disorderly clothes and trinkets. We drank extremely sweet coffee.

When the rain cleared, we said goodbye and Raimundo took us back over the Tapajõs. The river was very windy and choppy. For an hour we sped along slapping the water with spine-jamming bumps. We were sprayed every few minutes by the struggling river—completely soaked. My blister was draining the whole time, mingling its infected waters with the river’s.

But it was a great day—surprising, interesting, fun, unusual. We’d seen dolphins, an eagle, two kinds of monkeys in the trees along the river. I was surprised that people could live that way, literally in the river, for generations. The colors were intense and beautiful. Eloise was confident and charming. There were hugs all around as we left. Dona Rosalinda cried.

But I was even more surprised when I got back to the pousada (inn) in Alter do Chão that evening to see that the reluctant blister was almost completely dry. Then I realized why: my knees were burned. I’d been sitting in the wind and the sun on the open boat, not feeling the heat because we were wet the whole time.

Perfect, I thought. A perfect end to an ugly mess. Now both knees were equally red, pulsing with discomfort. Que mais? What next?


I Wanted to Know What Would Happen if I Spent My Last Centavo…


HSBC, “the world’s bank”: EXCEPT WHEN THEY’RE CLOSED

I wanted to know what would happen if I spent my last centavo. I’m the kind of person who likes to be prepared. Having not even a cent to my name is anathema to me. I wanted to test my limits.


(In fact, I’d tried to get money out on the weekend but the HSBC machine at the Santos Dumont airport was not dispensing money.)

I’d been living on my last R$50 ($25US) since Saturday, and by Monday was down to R$4 ($2US).

That included R$1 that I pinched from my  friend Vinicius. Things were getting tight.

Still, I stayed at home, ate lunch there and went to the Canadian Consulate in the afternoon to return some poor sod’s driver’s licence and beat up wallet—the remains of a mugging in my neighborhood over the weekend.

I then spent R$2.75 getting the bus from Copacabana to Ipanema.

I was down to R$1 and 20 centavos. That’s sixty cents, folks.

Throwing the rest of my caution to the wind, I asked the pipoca man (popcorn guy) if he’d sell me a half portion, usually R$2, for my spare change. He did—in fact, he gave me a full portion.

I was looking forward to a more robust snack once I’d gone to the bank.

So there I was for about 4 blocks with not a scrap of money on me. Not even one centavo. Liberty? Wasn’t sure.

Then, as if fate decided to inject some incontrovertible certainty into the situation, my sandal snap broke with a sudden snap and crash, twisting my ankle and wrenching my back.

I was now limping to the HSBC bank. How I was going to get my shoe fixed before leaving for the Amazon, two days away?? But first, to fix my shoe, I needed money.

A pack of young Australians at the bank were having bank-card issues.

Probably didn’t pre-authorize their cards before they left home, I thought smugly as I dipped my white card into the machine. I had.

Then the machine spat out a slip at me. Then another. No money, just a grubby little dirty yellow slip telling me to ‘call my institution.’

The guard behind the now-locked glass doors of the closed-to-the-public (but not actually closed) bank told me to wait a second and try again.

That sounded cockamamie: there was clearly a problem. That damned airport ATM: Not only had it not given me any cash, it has also locked up my card in some incomprehensible security maneuver.

Unlike the Australians, I didn’t have an international cell phone to call my US bank. But I did have some Portuguese. The guard got an official looking woman to come talk to me.

Me speaking in the Portuguese of a 7-year old: My card doesn’t work, I’m totally out of money, and the free phone here in the lobby won’t connect to international call centers.

Official-looking Bank Lady: Your card doesn’t work? We can’t do anything until tomorrow at 10 a.m. We are closed.

Me: I can’t wait til tomorrow. I have not even one penny on me.

Official-looking Bank Lady: We do not serve anyone after we are closed.

Me: All I need is to use the phone.

Now distinctly a Bureaucratic Bank Lady: You can use the phones on the street.

Me: I did.  They didn’t accept the collect call that the bank operator told me to make.

BBL, handing me a pamphlet through the glass door: Call this number.

Me: I can’t! I have no money!

BBL: I cannot help you. It’s after hours.

Me, getting irate: YOU are here!! Those people behind you are there! You are surrounded by phones!  You want me to sleep on the street waiting for you to come back tomorrow to make a one minute phone call???

BBL: You can still use your [blocked!!] card at shops.

Me: I don’t think so! That’s the nature of a *blocked* card!

BBL: Well I cannot open the door to the public now.

Me: But all I need is a phone. I don’t even know if I can get back to my house to make the call myself! You are supposed to be MY bank!

BBL: Wait a second here.

—-long minutes pass. Then another Official-looking Bank Lady comes out. We go through the same thing all over again. To no avail.

I leave with no money.

The next stop is a yoga class where the owner, Coaracy Nunes, cheerfully hears me out and says: Don’t worry, darling, it’s all happening for a reason, maybe not so obvious right now. You don’t have to pay for class. No worries! Just roll with things, it’s gonna be fine. Don’t take it personally. These things happen! This is Brazil!

Class helps me focus on something other than how I wanted to strangle BBL. But how am I going to get home?

After, I meet up with Marcus, a fellow Canadian I met at a dinner party last week. He was going to give me his apartment keys–and a free apartment in the Flamengo neighborhood for July.

Breathlessly (and some what ravenously) I told him what had happened at the bank.  I’m still hobbling along in my broken sandal.

I even tried, I told him, even after the bank incident to buy a snack at a lanchonette (open-air snack stand) but of course AS I ALREADY KNEW, my card wouldn’t work.

Marcus showed me his one room apartment, with one burner, one window and one saggy couch-bed. Then he took pity on me and we went out for a beer and some aipim fries (like yucca) and frango de passarinho, a plate of small pieces of fried chicken. We talked a lot. We’d overlapped at college. We had lots of stories about Brazil.

When the choppe (draft beer) was drunk, he paid the bill and put R$20 in my pocket. That meant I could take a taxi when I reached my subway stop and wouldn’t have to clamber up the hill to Santa Teresa late at night in my broken shoe.

I’d arrived at yoga with nothing except massive frustration and a dose of fear. I’d all but forgotten my challenge to the powers-that-be: let’s see what happens when me, little miss organized, walks into a no-security-net situation.

And in fact, I already had everything I needed: near-strangers willing to help out, fill my belly and my pockets, as needed. Even give their apartments.

Okay, universe, that was a good one. You got me.


Lotus of the Heart: How Meditation Led Me to True Love

Brooklyn Book Writing Coach Author Joelle Hann NYC Meditation.jpg

An Essay for Valentine’s Day

The way Francesco broke up with me was as simple as it was shocking. It was a Saturday afternoon in July and we’d just seen a movie at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Riding the subway back downtown, we sat side by side, him in an inexplicable and smoldering silence. Then he got up and walked out of the train. I never saw him again.

Dumbfounded, I was left to fill in the blanks myself. We’d only been dating for three months, seeing each other about once a week. Steady and sweet, he was the first guy in long while who seemed to enjoy being in a relationship rather than fighting it. He called me, took me out, complimented me. For more than a year, I’d dated men whom, I’d realize too late, were playing the field. Francesco’s availability was refreshing—in fact, it was a relief.

Until that fateful Saturday. Nothing had gone wrong as far as I could tell. Had something bothered him about the movie? Had he met someone else? Was it me?

After a week, I swallowed my pride and texted him. Nothing. After a few more days, I called. Still nothing. Then, my insides churning, I emailed a plea for any kind of explanation, no strings attached. Dead silence.

Francesco’s behavior made no sense, and, a month later, I was still struggling to accept it. On a friend’s suggestion, I went to a yoga center to check out a Tantric meditation class (which contrary to popular Western thought is not all about sex).

As a yoga teacher and yoga writer, I’d made many attempts to make meditation part of my practice, but nothing had stuck. I thought I could give it another try, but I had low expectations.

As I discovered, this yogic approach was different. Rather than simply closing our eyes and sitting there pestered by thoughts, the instructor had us trace our chakras, or energy centers, up and down the spine. We chanted their associated sounds (called bija mantras or seed sounds) and made the hand gestures or mudras. It was powerful and absorbing, and I found myself effortlessly transported. By the time it was over, some of the bewilderment and disappointment I’d been lugging around had lifted.

I was intrigued by the method and the teacher. His insights into love startled me—in a good way. When we got to the heart, he said, “Here we cultivate a feeling of loving for no reason at all.”

For no reason at all. The way the teacher put it struck me like a thunder clap. Most of the loving I did had an agenda. With Francesco I had been defensive and cautious. I’d expected him to pass a series of tests: to call, to take me out, to consider my needs. I wanted him to prove he liked me. I’d been constantly judging him, assessing whether he and his efforts were good enough.

But what about inviting love in by giving it out first? And with no purpose at all? As corny as that idea sounded, I could feel it was true: I had to give love in order to get it.

The heart chakra is called anahata, which means “that which cannot be destroyed.” Its element is air, which governs the sense of touch. Its quality addresses our ability to connect with or touch others. It’s often symbolized by a lotus, which, when open, drinks up the power of the sun but, when closed, droops down and withdraws.

I’d always thought that my most meaningful connection in life would come from romance, but now my daily meditation practice often feels better even than that—steadier, deeper, and more abiding. As I run through the chakras, I often linger at the heart center. It’s here that the possibility of romantic love blossoms, yes, but so does the love that I can share in a smile with a stranger or a friendly word on a crowded subway. It’s love that lets me help a blind old man walk to the corner and that sends me on an errand for a friend in need. It’s love that pushes me to share with my yoga students what I’m learning.

I know now that love is mine for the taking. I don’t need to wait for the other person to prove his love to me.

Today I keep fresh flowers in my house to remind me of the uplifting life of an open heart. And when I think of Francesco, I no longer feel bad about his silent departure, I only regret silently judging his every move.

The Big Book: Yoga Studies Institute teaches the Bhagavad Gita


The main lobby of Pure Yoga is covered in backpacks and notebooks. Groups of people, some from as far away as Arizona, England, and India, sit together eating snacks and talking. It looks like a college common room around exam time. But these studious people, ranging from early 20s to late 40s, are not gathered to take a test. They are here to receive the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu text, as taught by Tibetan Buddhist monk Geshe Michael Roach and his co-teacher Lama Christie McNally.

For eight evenings in November, Roach and McNally explicated the Gita—which is 9th scripture course in their Yoga Studies Institute (YSI) series—discussing the text’s insights into karma and ethical living. The conversation between Arjuna, the warrior prince, and Krishna, the Hindu god (disguised as Arjuna’s trusted friend and charioteer) is a model of student-guru relationship, and a fitting tableau to explain some of yoga’s subtle concepts.

The excitement in the room was palpable. Roach and McNally only come to New York about twice a year and many students—including long-time ones—had not heard this particular teaching. As well, the duo will be traveling extensively in 2010, before they undertake another 3-year silent retreat later in the year. Both will make them inaccessible to their New York-based students.

Roach and McNally taught from a stage covered in roses and lilies. Each night, when they entered the room, students bowed, offering abundant flowers, fruit, chocolate, CDs of music, and even boxes of breakfast cereal. These entrances took quite a while as the teachers gathered the goods and chatted with students.

Then, Lama Christie, dressed in her signature white cotton, opened the formal teaching with a heart-centered meditation and visualization.

Rather than go chapter by chapter through the Gita, the two used particular stanzas to discuss key ideas of karma, the laws of action, and perception.

Present action, they said, does not lead to present results. That’s just our wish to control of our lives. Rather, present situations spring from “seeds” planted long ago. So, if you want something in your future life, give it away now. If you want a lot of money, give a lot of money away (Roach has written books on this). If you want a good boyfriend, help someone else meet their romantic partner. If you love churros (a fried Spanish donut, often sold on subway platforms), give all your churros away. Roach used the example of receiving a pizza box full of churros after sharing a bag with some students.

“In our life, we are trained to think we can’t get our goal or that we should have reasonable goals,” says Roach. “If you understand how to do an action, you don’t have to settle for anything less anymore.” We can—and should—dream big, but to get everything we want we need to stop thinking of ourselves. In helping others first, our own dreams will be fulfilled.

Also, they lectured, things in the material and emotional world are projections from within us. As subjective constructions, they don’t actually exist. It’s because form and reality are not fixed that enlightenment—a major shift in perspective—is possible.

Some attendees, like Edward Lafferty, assistant to a senior YSI teacher, felt that they were receiving spiritual nourishment just by being at the event. “It’s very clear that things are happening at a deeper level,” he said. “There’s some sort of transmission going on beyond the words.”

Others were curious. Piotr Bracichowicz, a lecturer in computer engineering at CUNY, had come along with his wife, a yoga teacher. “These are simple things they’re talking about,” he said, “but they are life changing. We cannot make an action expecting a certain result. But we are responsible for making good actions anyway. It’s a great practice.”

But for others, the event raised questions. Phebe Palin, psychotherapist and lecturer at Brooklyn College, found the ceremony around the teaching distracting.“I was surprised that it took them 45 minutes to get into the room every night,” says Palin who is currently training enrolled in the Conquering Lion yoga teacher training program. “I would have liked to have heard them teach more.”

The program, slated to end at 11pm each night, often ran past midnight.

As for why now is the time to teach the Bhagavad Gita, Lobsang Chukyi, Buddhist nun and assistant to Roach and McNally commented, “The story centers on someone who is confused in midst of battlefield—confused about what to do. The world is confused right now. People don’t know what to do in their lives. They want the knowledge.”

As attendees searched for their shoes and socks at the end of the night, many lovingly watched their teachers as they left the studio. The feeling of excitement hadn’t dimmed. It was a bit tired, but still burning bright.


Off the Couch and Onto the Mat


At the Intersection of Yoga and Psychology

IN EARLY August 2008, Margot Andersen’s newly-married, 29-year-old son was hit and killed by a car while crossing a busy highway in Chicago. For Margot, a social worker in Chicago schools for more than 13 years, the pain of the sudden, tragic loss was overwhelming. Enrolled in a yoga teacher-training program, and recently trained in LifeForce Yoga, a type of yoga focused on mood management, Andersen turned to methods she knew would have an immediate affect on her emotional stamina — yogic breathing, visualizations and mantras.

“It’s what’s gotten me through this past month,” says Andersen, 56. “Otherwise I’d be in bed, I’d be horrible.”

When she felt too exhausted to complete daily tasks, Margot used LifeForce’s breath of joy to access untapped energy. To calm down enough to sleep she practiced nadi shodahna (alternate nostril breathing); San kalpas (intentions) and mantras (chants) gave her the strength to leave the house.

“When I had no energy, and could feel myself sinking, I used the breath,” says Andersen.

Andersen also underwent a phone session with Amy Weintraub, the Arizona-based founder of LifeForce Yoga and an international leader in the field of yoga and mental health. Weintraub designed LifeForce to train psychotherapists, social workers and yoga teachers to use classical Hatha yoga methods with their clients. She says the methods work because, “The sense of separation, which is the literal source of depression, is diminished and the sense of connection to oneself and others is enhanced.”

At a time when the practice of physical yoga poses, or asanas, is at an all-time-high (with 15.8 million practitioners nationally, according to Yoga Journal’s most recent survey), psychotherapists and yoga teachers are discovering — or rediscovering — how yogic tools might apply to therapeutic settings. At the same time, many yoga teachers, wanting to be of more service to their students, are borrowing methods from traditional Western psychotherapy. For both sides the goal is the same: integrate these practices to help people help themselves.

Teach Them To Fish

“We’re giving people tools they can use for the rest of their lives,” says Bo Forbes, founder and director of the Center for Integrative Yoga Therapeutics (CIYT) in Boston. “It’s a modality of healing that comes from within the client themselves — it’s not therapist based.”

Lauren, a high school teacher in Queens, NY, entered into “yoga psychotherapy” five months ago, because she felt she needed to talk to someone about the stresses of her job and life. “I was getting weighed down with negativity,” says Lauren.

Working with Joan Stenzler, a licensed social worker and Kripalu-trained yoga teacher, Lauren has tamed her anxiety using meditation, visualization and precepts from yoga philosophy.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the universe and how people react to you and you react to them,” Lauren explains, adding she prefers this process to the traditional talk therapy she had experienced in the past. “These are things my yoga teachers also talk about in regular classes.”

Lauren often applies her newfound coping skills on the job at school. “One of the biggest things to remember in dealing with teenagers is don’t take it personally. Deflecting what’s aimed at me allows me not to carry it through the rest of my day.”

For example, when a tardy child makes a scene about having to sign a late card, Lauren imagines surrounding herself in a white light that bounces back negativity. “It sounds corny, but even if it doesn’t completely work, it definitely puts you in the mindset of analyzing what’s going on and why they are reacting to you that way.”

In-Body Experience

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, has noted a recent shift in psychotherapy as therapists, such as Stenzler, turn to yoga for more effective ways to treat clients, especially those with long-standing issues. “What psychotherapists are beginning to realize is that the body has been left out,” says McGonigal.

Opening the way for yoga-based therapeutics are the mindfulness practices of the Buddhist traditions that, over the past 10 years, have been increasingly accepted into clinical settings and taught in American medical schools. According to Paul Fulton, president of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy based in Newton, Massachusetts, empirical trials such as those conducted by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center have helped establish mindfulness as a viable treatment in the eyes of the medical establishment. In September 2008, Fulton’s own organization launched a new 9-month certificate program in mindfulness and psychotherapy for mental health care providers.

No Touching, Please

However, integrating yoga-based methods into psychotherapeutic work presents inherent challenges. More than just watching the thoughts or the breath, clients and therapists may also be working with the body. Strict licensing standards today protect clients against physical abuses from their psychotherapists, which unfortunately were all too common in the past. The body is taboo.

Ann Friedenheim, a psychotherapist, drug and alcohol counselor and yoga teacher in Allentown, Pennsylvania, gets around this restriction by using very simple yoga-based techniques with her clients, ones that don’t involve touching.

One woman who had a long history of abuse both as a child and as a spouse, came to Friedenheim in physical and psychological pain, barely able to cope with daily tasks. Friedenheim used breath and hands-off bodywork to ease her client’s emotional paralysis. “Every session began with just breathing for five or ten minutes. She always refers back to it. She says, ‘Remember when we started breathing?’ It had a big impact.”

Other practitioners have kept their yoga therapy distinct from their clinical practices, sometimes having separate offices or studios for the two techniques. Boston-based Bo Forbes — who has nearly 20 years experience as a psychotherapist and over 10 years as a yoga teacher — has found yoga-based techniques so effective, she has closed her private practice in order to teach integrative yoga therapeutics, and to supervise the Center for Integrative Yoga Therapeutics in Boston.

“Talking can almost activate and rehearse issues that you’re trying to work through,” says Forbes, whose Elemental Yoga Mind-Body Teacher Training Program has been approved by the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers as ongoing training for psychotherapists and social workers. “Some people have done 15-20 years of therapy, are motivated and insightful, but they can’t change because their nervous system is holding and retaining its pattern.”

That’s certainly been true for Maria Ray, a Chicago-based flight attendant. When she got out of rehab for alcohol abuse, she knew she didn’t want to go back to traditional therapy. “All of the therapists suggested taking medications or talking about stuff that happened in the past but they could never really solve it,” says Ray.

That was until she stumbled on a Kundalini yoga center whose director, Shabad Kaur Khalsa, was also a licensed counselor. They began their sessions talking through what was happening in the moment and spent the second half doing breathing and meditation exercises, and a few simple poses. “Talking helps with the release, and the meditation brings me full circle,” says Ray. “The relaxation therapy helps to integrate it.”

Ray says friends and colleagues have observed the change. “My friends noticed that my face has gotten more relaxed and there’s a sense of calmness to me from how I used to be.”

“Shabad taught me how to be in control of my own mood,” says Ray, who is now off medications altogether. “It’s been a miracle.”

Down Dog Processing

On the other end of the spectrum, a growing number of yoga teachers who are not licensed to diagnose or prescribe treatments are bringing more traditional Western psychological insights — and training — to bear on their clients’ practices and issues. Ashley Turner of Los Angeles, who recently completed her MA in Counseling Psychology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute, uses tools from her academic work, techniques from her yoga teaching, as well as images, sounds and insights drawn from yoga’s built-in psychology to guide her clients to greater self-awareness.

Stephen Lewis in New York also brings a psychological orientation into individual yoga sessions. Trained in Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, a form of yoga therapy that incorporates witnessing, dialoguing and reflecting in client-centered sessions, Lewis has also enrolled in an MA program in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness at NYU’s Steinhart School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. For his clinical internship, he is providing yoga therapy to the psychiatry inpatient unit of New York’s Bellevue hospital. “There’s so much demand, they are hungry for it. I just go where I’m needed,” says Lewis, 31. In a separate project at Bronx Psychiatric Center, Lewis is collaborating with psychiatrist and yoga-practitioner Dr. Elizabeth Visceglia on a two-month trial assessing how yoga helps people with severe mental illness such as schizophrenia.

For some, “yoga psychotherapy” could become a one-stop shop for addressing physical and emotional issues in the same session. Leah Metzger, a client working with Ashley Turner, likes the integrative nature of the sessions. “I can see Ashley for everything,” says the LA-native. “For other things I’m going through like relationships, career, health things. It’s a well-rounded way to grow myself.”


Yogi, Take Me to a Higher Place


When Raquel Prieto moved from Northampton, Mass., to Boston in January, there was one thing she sought as urgently as an affordable living situation and a job: an advanced yoga class.

As a dedicated yogi, she wanted to work on meditation and on poses, or asanas, requiring a lot of strength and flexibility and a deep mental focus.

Even after spending $700 and two months trying out studios, she still hadn’t found a place she could build on the advanced practice she developed in a Northampton studio. So she patched together a combination of home practice, classes at a nearby yoga center, visits to a meditation center and trips back to Northampton.

“I’m not thrilled,” said Ms. Prieto, 23. “It’s hit or miss.” Her search for satisfaction, she said, “was a huge emotional thing. I got depressed.”

With a yoga studio seemingly on every corner, it might appear counterintuitive for any yoga class to be in short supply. But Ms. Prieto’s experience is not unique; many seasoned practitioners report having a hard time finding challenging classes.

The reason is simple. Yoga has evolved from a passion for the few into a mainstream pursuit. There are 15.8 million adults practicing yoga, according to Yoga Journal’s recent “Yoga in America” study, with almost one third of them practicing for a year or less. The study also found that the number of people interested in trying yoga tripled from 2004 to 2008 to an estimated 18.3 million.

Since catering to the legions of more novice practitioners makes the most business sense, most of the classes at yoga centers are geared toward the basic and intermediate levels.

“Things have swayed backward from very advanced asana practice,” said Jasmine Tarkeshi, a director of Laughing Lotus Yoga Center, which has studios in New York and San Francisco.

Prime-time offerings must cater to the largest group of students, she added. “We have to make it accessible for everyone, especially those evening slots when most people can come.” Smaller advanced classes are typically relegated to less-desirable midday slots.

Part of the problem, say many teachers and practitioners, is a scarcity of instructors capable of guiding students into a more-advanced practice. These days, they say, many master teachers travel around the world giving workshops, another result of the profitable explosion in yoga’s popularity. Americans spend $5.7 billion a year on yoga classes, products, equipment, clothing and media, up 87 percent from 2004, the Yoga Journal study found.

While it is hard to accurately tell how many people have advanced practices, especially given the range of what constitutes “advanced,” a survey by the chain Yoga Works this year showed that 10 percent of its students self-identified as advanced. Further, the Yoga Journal study estimated that almost 12 percent of those practicing yoga have been doing so for 10 years or more, which at least demonstrates a strong commitment.

There are some generally accepted markers for what makes a student advanced. Barring injury, they are comfortable holding a headstand (considered an advanced beginner’s pose) for several minutes or more. They work on free-standing handstands, and attempt deep backbends, forward bends, twists and other arm balances. If they’re truly advanced, they don’t radiate smugness as they practice difficult postures.

“Lots of young strong people want crazy tricks, and that’s fun and part of it, but in my view that’s not advanced at all,” said Annie Carpenter, 50, a senior teacher at Yoga Works in Santa Monica, Calif.

Advanced yogis work on breathing techniques and focus, since mental acuity eventually helps them transition into meditation, considered the ultimate goal of yoga. Even if advanced students can’t find the fullest expression of a pose, they will try it with concentration and a sense of humor.

“You go to advanced to have that same feeling you had as a beginner, that sense of wonder that no one would believe what you did today,” said Liz Buehler, 34, a director of the new Yoga High studio on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Cyndi Lee, the founder and director of OM Yoga Center in Manhattan, said that just the notion of an advanced class can scare some people off, but that her studio emphasizes the process, not the end point. “Advanced does not mean you are already advanced,” said Ms. Lee, 54. “It means you are ready to learn and practice advanced asanas.”

OM recently added advanced-level classes to prime-time spots on the schedule after students began requesting more of them.

Many students who are determined to keep progressing have enough knowledge to practice on their own. But they are also looking for skilled guidance and a community of like-minded practitioners. Others might work privately with a teacher, but the cost (from $75 to $150 an hour) can be prohibitive over time. Many take extra workshops, including teacher-training programs, to satisfy the craving for more knowledge and the chance to practice deeper poses.

NO BEGINNERS HERE  Aarona Pichinson performing a move at the Kula Yoga Project in TriBeCa during a two-hour advanced yoga class.  Credit: Christian Hansen for The New York Times

NO BEGINNERS HERE Aarona Pichinson performing a move at the Kula Yoga Project in TriBeCa during a two-hour advanced yoga class. Credit: Christian Hansen for The New York Times

Things weren’t always so arduous. Alan Brown of Manhattan began practicing yoga in the 1990s, when classes were smaller and there were fewer inexperienced teachers. Yoga enthusiasts were a small group striving to see what they could do next. “The classes were very advanced,” Mr. Brown said, and the people were devoted.

Though he has managed to find classes that he looks forward to, Mr. Brown, a film director and writer, believes that over time he has slid backward to a more intermediate-level practice. “We talk about it,” he said of his classmates from years past. “How great classes are so much harder to find now.”

Jamie Bishton, 47, who recently returned to his native Los Angeles after more than 20 years in New York, has felt a similar frustration. “I ended up going to general, open-level classes and always doing the same 14 poses,” Mr. Bishton said.

He enrolled in a teacher-training program without intending to teach. Once he graduated, he found that he knew more than many teachers leading open-level classes.

Mr. Bishton, who had a dance career in New York and is now an executive in his family’s auto business, cobbles together a practice from classes at several Los Angeles studios. But with commuting time a concern, he often ends up at Century City Equinox, the gym near his house. He has been lucky: the gym is fairly new and allowed him to design a yoga class advanced enough for his needs.

Ultimately, for those who want to learn difficult poses, breathing techniques, and subtle work with body energies, a senior teacher is an important guide. “If you’re going to do really challenging postures that ask a lot of your body, you need someone you trust to take you there,” said Kino MacGregor, who, at 30, is one of the youngest certified teachers in the demanding Ashtanga yoga tradition.

Ms. Buehler of Yoga High cautions that it its not just advanced students who will suffer from a lack of higher-level classes. “If people who were beginners five years ago continue to practice,” said Ms. Buehler, who teaches a weekly two-hour master class, “we will need to be able to offer them something more than just a midlevel challenge.”

Seeking a deeper yoga practice? Here are a range of advanced classes that are favorites among high-level students.

NEW YORK Kula Yoga Project, 28 Warren Street, Fourth Floor (212) 945-4460

Advanced flow yoga by Schuyler Grant, Fridays at 4:15 p.m.

Ms. Grant teaches several creative Vinyasa classes in TriBeCa. Emphasis is on strength, stamina and breath work.

CALIFORNIA Yoga Works, 2215 Main Street, Santa Monica (310) 664-6470 Level 2-3 class with Annie Carpenter, Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays at 10:45 a.m.

Known as a teacher’s teacher, Ms. Carpenter uses a style that blends asana with exploration of subtle muscular and skeletal movements, breath work (pranayama) within movements and meditation.

MASSACHUSETTS BKS Iyengar Yogamala of Cambridge,

St. Mary’s Church, 8 Inman Street, Cambridge, (781) 648-3455

Level 5 with Patricia Walden, Wednesdays at 1:30, by permission.

Ms. Walden, a highly accredited Iyengar yoga instructor, teaches a Level 5 class, the highest in the Iyengar system. Emphasis is on alignment, poses, healing and discovering one’s true nature.

FLORIDA Miami Life Center,

736 Sixth Street, Miami Beach

(305) 534-8988

Mysore-style Ashtanga with Kino MacGregor, Monday to Friday at 10 a.m.

Meysore Ashtanga Yoga Kino MacGregor.jpg

Ms. MacGregor leads Mysore, or traditional-style practice, up to the fourth series. The highest level in Ashtanga is the sixth series. Many people don’t make it to the second series.

ILLINOIS Yoga View, 2211 North Elston Avenue, Suite 200, Chicago

(773) 342-9642 Level 3 with Jim Bennitt, Mondays at 12:30 p.m.

Mr. Bennitt, a former clerk at the Chicago Board Options Exchange, teaches at Yoga View and two other studios.

This class, the highest level he teaches, weaves breathing and meditation techniques into a demanding physical practice.

Between Poses, a Barrage of Pickup Lines

STRETCH AND FLIRT  Many women are familiar with the seedy character in the “Inappropriate Yoga Guy” video, above.

STRETCH AND FLIRT Many women are familiar with the seedy character in the “Inappropriate Yoga Guy” video, above.

The Phenomenon of Inappropriate Yoga Guy

THE words “Do you come here often?” are not sweet nothings when you are going into final relaxation during a yoga class. Nor do most yoga practitioners welcome someone who flirts shamelessly as mats are positioned during the lull before the teacher arrives.

Now, a popular online video starring a lech named Ogden has the yoga community chuckling in recognition and talking about the problem of men who come to studios in search of phone numbers rather than enlightenment.

The comedy sketch, aptly named “Inappropriate Yoga Guy,” has racked up nearly 1.8 million views since its debut on YouTube in June — no doubt the biggest hit to date for, an online comedy network in Los Angeles, which produced the video starring Avi Rothman.

Wearing a goofy headband, Ogden “Oms” far too loudly, brags about the retreats he has attended in Nepal and Mexico, and makes eyes at Kimberly, a buxom long-haired beauty, during class. He even grabs her hips to perform an adjustment (a correction usually done discreetly by a teacher).

Hilarious as it is, “Inappropriate Yoga Guy” raises a delicate issue that the video now has people discussing openly: that while the majority of yogis are respectful and friendly, a handful of interlopers use classes to hit on a succession of lithe, toned regulars. More than a dozen students and teachers and six studio owners interviewed for this article said they knew an Ogden-type character.

“There’s always a guy who wants to put his mat next to the hot girl,” said Hillary Raphael, 31, a writer based in Washington. Ms. Raphael, in her 20 years of practice, has found inappropriate yoga guys so prevalent in studios that she wove them into her novel, “Backpacker,” to be published next month by Creation Books.

Yoga regulars aren’t prudes; rather most of them abide by some unspoken rules (such as no talking or no looking around) that some newcomers unwittingly break in pursuit of comely dates.

Ms. Raphael described an experience she had during a vinyasa class she used to attend at Sal Anthony’s Movement Salon in Manhattan. “All you could hear was people’s steady breathing,” she said. “Yet this guy next to me was trying to strike up a conversation the whole time.

”The man, who was in his early 40s, used a loud stage whisper to ask about Ms. Raphael’s hobbies. “You could hear people’s breath sagging and stopping,” she said. “They couldn’t believe it.”

Other men are even bolder. Stephanie King, 40, a jewelry designer who practices yoga five times a week in Los Angeles, said she has had cringe-worthy encounters during her 20 years of practice. In one instance, a fellow regular Ms. King had met in passing approached her after a power yoga class and asked if she had enjoyed her practice. She had. Then, apropos of nothing, he asked if she wanted to be his lover.

Ms. King calmly told the man she would think about it. After a particularly intense practice, it can take a moment to regroup and get your social bearings. But once at her car, she called him and said, “I just want to let you know that I’m going to pass on being your lover.”

Her politeness masked annoyance. “I was put out because he just ruined my blissful feeling after class,” she said.Another time, an attractive man stretched his hand out during a floor twist until it rested on Ms. King’s breast; he removed his hand when asked.

“If you’re going to a yoga studio to pick up girls, or boys for that matter, you’re not doing yoga,” said Lama Sumati Marut, 54, president of the Yoga Studies Institute in Tucson.

Yoga, done seriously, is a discipline designed to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime, he said.

Needless to say, not everyone who drops into a yoga class is on a spiritual path. Consider the women at Yoga Works in Midtown Manhattan who can’t help flirting with Steve Eisenberg, much to his delight. “It’s a very social environment,” said Mr. Eisenberg, 38, a consultant who helps companies create digital media.

“They’ll say, ‘I’ve seen you around,’ and start chatting,” added Mr. Eisenberg, who is single and said he enjoys the attention.

The question is: What responsibility does a studio or a teacher have if one student is making another uncomfortable?

Some instructors like Kelly McGonigal, 29, who teaches at Stanford University and at the Avalon Art and Yoga Center in Palo Alto, Calif., take matters into their own hands.

“I had a popular class that some of the regulars stopped showing up to because a guy was relentlessly hitting on them,” said Dr. McGonigal, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and edits the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She confronted the overeager student in question, and he backed off, saying it was all a misunderstanding.

“He didn’t realize that he was perceived as hitting on people when he invited them out to dinner or to parties,” she said.

Teachers, who are most likely to notice misbehavior, are the ones who should aim to make their classes safe havens free of distractions, said Judith Hanson Lasater, president of the California Yoga Teachers Association.

But in Dr. McGonigal’s case, that was not possible. “It was happening outside of the classroom,” she said.

It was only after a chance encounter on the street with two of her students that Dr. McGonigal found out “they had stopped coming because they didn’t want to see that guy.”

Having an outlet for complaints would help, said Dr. Lasater, who has a Ph.D. in East-West psychology.

Most studio staff agree that teachers dating their students is a difficult situation at best, and exploitative at worst. But there is little consensus about student come-ons. After all, is asking for a phone number in a yoga studio any different than swapping digits across treadmills?

Some say yes. Trolling for dates at yoga studios strikes a lot of regulars as tacky and reprehensible — even to some bachelors.

“Why would I stare down a girl in yoga class?” said Christopher Porzio, 36, a photographer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who practices at least four times a week. “People are coming to help themselves, to get more comfortable. Why rob them of their comfort?”

For others, it is a gray area. Fred Busch, 32, the owner of Miami Yogashala, knows that some male and female members actively scope out dates at his center. He is uncomfortable with it but, he said, “there’s no law against talking to someone.”

To confuse matters, some centers foster dating. For instance, the Joy Yoga Center in Houston offers singles classes once a week, an hourlong vinyasa practice followed by snacks and socializing. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, two-thirds of the participants are men.

The Flow Yoga Center in Washington already has a class on Thursday night nicknamed “social flow,” after which students go for cocktails, and has plans for speed dating in its tea lounge.

But the downside is that one student glomming on to another can dampen a studio’s atmosphere. That is what happened at the Dallas Yoga Center in Texas, when a 40-something man’s overtures disturbed some female students. As soon as studio staff noticed the man’s unsettling behavior, the director, David Sunshine, took the man aside for a heart-to-heart. “We don’t mingle the dating scene with yoga,” Mr. Sunshine said. “We focus on quality yoga teaching.”

Plenty of singles don’t mind having another yogi propose dinner. Elana Wertkin, 31 of Park Slope, Brooklyn, went a few dates with a cute guy she met in a neighborhood class.

“We walked out at the same time and he said ‘Let’s go for a smoothie,’ ” said Ms. Wertkin, a documentary film producer.

But her interest in him was soon cut short. On their third date, he confessed that part of the reason he loved yoga class was watching women lie on their backs, legs spread.

“I had to stop going to that studio for a long time after that,” Ms. Wertkin said.

The FLIP Festival: Head over Heels in Parati, Brazil


Mountains thick with tropical vegetation rise behind the coastal town of Parati, Brazil; the bay spreads before it, dotted with fishing boats. Along the old wooden docks, fishermen, shirtless and shoeless, prepare their nets with quick, strong hands. In streets paved with oversized cobblestones, women serve doces, sweets like maracujá (passion fruit) tarts made with condensed milk. Parati—which, until the 1970s, was accessible only by boat—lies equidistant from Brazil’s major cities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and is home to the last of Brazilian royalty. it is known throughout Brazil as somewhere special, a retreat and an oasis…. Continue reading about Festa Literaria Internacional de Parati (PDF format).


My Mother, Making Curry

AS PUBLISHED IN The Paupered Chef

Joelle Hann writes about her family roots in curry, pomegranate martinis, and the etymology of “asafoetida” — an apparently stinky ingredient that the French call “devil’s shit,” and which holds the secret to vegetarian Indian cooking.

My mother was born in New Delhi, India, on midsummer night’s eve — June 24—1940. World War II was raging in the Western world, and India was not far from declaring its independence from Britain. Her parents worked for the Lord and Lady Viceroy to India, and had been living in India for some time, her mother as the seamstress, and her father, a Rolls Royce engineer, as the chauffeur.

Although they were servants, my grandparents had servants themselves. My mother had an ayah, or nannie, to tend to her, and no doubt the ayah took my mother along on visits to the Viceroy’s kitchen when she went looking for snacks, gossip, and companionship. It was in the steamy subcontinental kitchen that my mother acquired her love for the pungent aromas of Indian cooking, and, as an adult with a family of her own, she frequently recreated the meals she remembered so fondly from childhood. (My mother and my grandparents were eventually evacuated from India by the British Army in 1946).

That was fine with us. We all liked curry. In fact, on a family trip to England, when I was 14, my father and I competed to see who could eat the hottest curry. Trembling — crying, really, our eyes streaming with water, our palates blasted from the merciless spice — we worked our way through a few curry palaces in London and in the south where he was from.

In spite of this pedigree, I have hesitated to make curries myself. My mother’s curries were prized staples of her cooking repertoire, but were also painfully elaborate to make with all the side dishes, popadums, chapattis, chutneys (homemade, of course). Personally, I don’t like complicated cooking and never want to be “slaving over a hot stove,” no matter who I’m cooking for.

But this past fall, after carting home a large head of cauliflower from the local Saturday farm stand, and not knowing at all what to do with it (white sauce? surely not) I discovered a simple, cheap, and by-golly delicious recipe for cauliflower and pea curry in my favorite cookbook. It does require a trip to an Indian-foods supply store as the three key spices are not ones you are going to find at C-Town, or even Whole Foods. But once you’ve purchased them, you pretty much have a lifetime’s supply ($3 or so each).

I made the curry again this past Friday for a friend who was visiting. It was warming, soothing, with nice alternating textures — crunchy here, juicy there — and not so labor intensive that I missed hanging out with company during the preparations. With a sweet Riesling to counter the spicy heat (we immediately ran out of mango chutney), it was energetic, provocative, and sociable, and it inspired a long and hilarious investigation into asafoetida, word and thing (it’s a tree gum, and one of the curry’s magic ingredients).

This recipe is borrowed from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. The ingredients that make this curry sing are asafoetida, green mango powder and garam masala. You can’t do without them, so plan ahead.

Curried Cauliflower with Peas
Feeds 4.

In order of appearance:
¼ cup vegetable oil
½ tsp cumin, toasted and ground
¼ tsp asafoetida, grated1 tsp turmeric
¼ cup ginger, peeled and chopped
½ tsp cayenne4 tsp coriander, toasted and ground1 onion, thinly sliced
½ cup water1 large cauliflower, broken into small florets
1 ½ tsp salt
1/2lb sugar-snap peas, strings removed (frozen peas okay)
2 tsp green mango powder (ground amchoor)
1 tsp garam masala
basmati ric
emango or other sweet chutneys offset the curry’s spicy punch

Heat the vegetable oil till hot (I used grapeseed oil since it doesn’t smoke), then add the cumin and asafoetida. Cook, stirring continuously for 30 seconds. Add the tumeric, ginger, cayenne, coriander, and onion, and cook until the onions are translucent-—a few minutes.

Add the cauliflower florets and salt. Stir. Add the ½ cup water then cover and turn the heat down. Cook until the cauliflower is done, but not limp, 10 minutes or less. You want the cauliflower to retain some crunch. Add the peas, stir, and cook for one more minute. Stir in the green mango powder and taste for salt.Serve over basmati rice.

What actually happened:
After heating the oil, and adding the toasted, ground cumin, I had to wait for the asafoetida. The guest of honor, Bruce, was trying to grate the required ¼ teaspoon amount from a block of the turgid stuff. About the size of a cake of soap, and clearly a resin, a “mass” of asafoetida resists being separated from itself. Previously I had tried hacking off a small piece with a finely-serrated kitchen knife; as a result, though, the warming flavor wasn’t distributed well through the other ingredients, and the meal lacked some essential kick. I think grating is the way to go. (Ed. note: if you have a mortar and pestle, many recommend the mash-it-up method)

Fun facts: Apparently, asafeotida “tears” are the purest — and most pungent — form. The “mass” or “massa” I own has been mixed with whole wheat flour to tame the stinky odor (asafoetida contains the Latin word “foetid” with means ‘to stink’). It’s been an important spice in Iran, Afghanistan, and India for centuries: Jains and purist Brahmins also like it because it gives flavor to their otherwise bland vegetarian meals which, for religious reasons, cannot contain garlic and onions.

Anyway, the asafoetida delay meant that the cumin was in the oil for probably 2 minutes rather than the called-for 30 seconds. After we got it in and cooking, I quickly chopped the ginger and slicing the onions — I wasn’t quite ready for this stage — and then added the spices. Everything cooked like blazes for a few minutes, then I turned the heat off completely and made pomegranate martinis.

I figured that the spices and onions would be fine for a while, since they didn’t need to be crisp, and that the fancy soup pot I was using — a Le Creuset, my roommate’s — would retain some heat so that it wouldn’t take much to reignite the cooking. Stopping the dinner preparations at this point to make drinks helped me to slow down, and my guests to include me back into the conversation. We all got happily tipsy on the pomegranate martinis and there was no rush to barrel on into the main meal. A good, filling, spicy curry should not be eaten in a panic, like you have a train to catch.

After martinis and salad, I brought the onions and spices back up to temperature (as I predicted, they came up quickly) and added the cauliflower and salt, stirred, added the water, covered and waited. Then went in half a bag, more or less, of frozen peas, and as a last gesture, the green mango powder. The original recipe calls for fresh sugar snap peas — but frozen peas (without the pod) work just as well to bring contrasting color and texture to the meal (I confess, I’ve never made it with the fresh peas). I had cooked the rice while we were having martinis — 2 cups for 5 people — and I served the peas and cauliflower over the rice, in white porcelain bowls. Yum.

AS PUBLISHED IN The Paupered Chef



I can’t resist a challenge, and as I meet the challenge of living in New York, I become more and more settled here. I live in Brooklyn now, in an old Italian house, in a Dominican neighborhood. I’ve got an authentic New York State driver’s license, a job, a boyfriend, and a new immigration visa.Of course, it’s at this time that I’ve also begun to be wracked with homesickness. I ache to see the west coast. I yearn for long summer nights, late salmon barbecues on the beach, ocean kayaking and the smell of budlea, lilac and pine sweet on the night air. It could be the time of year: Canada is gorgeous in the summer. Or, perhaps it is time to go home?

It started a few weeks ago, when, sick in bed with a cold, I snuggled down with The New Yorker to read Jonathan Raban’s article, “Sailing into the Sublime, the Infidelity of Travel.” I opened it up, excited to see my part of the world represented. After my initial elation, and to my own astonishment, on opening up the magazine, I burst into jealous tears. It became intolerable that anyone else could be sailing up the west coast of Canada. It seemed especially unfair that miserable me-sick, and too poor as a recent graduate student to buy a ticket west-had to suffer the smelly, roasting, concrete-jungle summer in New York while this Englishman enjoyed himself on my islands.

I mopped up my tears, and took a look at what he had to say.

The tides between the islands, deep fogs, dense forest, magnetically green ocean, the imposing mountains that tower over narrow waterways, and eccentric people living in isolated communities, if you could call them that, filled Raban’s article. He watched this landscape from his boat. Concurrently, he relayed the early European explorers’ history of the area from their journals and ships’ logs. Raban was ‘discovering’ the coast, too; being filled with awe and desire as the sailors had, 300 years earlier.

I loved the coast with the same dazzled incomprehension, dwarfed with awe. But I have to admit, it was not until I’d been away from it myself, between the ages of 17 and 18-first year of university-that I learned how much I loved it. I have to try to explain why exactly it casts such a spell on me. It is beautiful, that goes without saying. But it also has some uncanny power, that Raban was trying to describe, as were Captain Cook and Captain Vancouver in the late 1700s.

The following incident might illuminate some of the coast’s illusive power. One cold, rainy winter weekend in 1995, I took a ferry from Vancouver to Galiano Island, an hour’s journey from the city, where I’d rented a tiny, mildewy cabin, and settled in for a weekend of solitary work. That night, a storm blew in. The lighthouse just across the waters, on Mayne Island, boomed out its sonorous warning, long after I’d let the fire die, put up the dishes and gone to bed. I woke up suddenly in the backroom. After a loud boom, all the windows in the front had snapped open in the fierce winds. I could hear the narrowed waters of Active Pass heaving and spraying up against the sandstone cliffs below. I ran out into the dark cabin with only the passing beam of the lighthouse to light the room. I fumbled with the lamps. The wind held the windows fast against me. Drawing them back into their frames proved a struggle. I fought the wind for them. After an hour I had the place secured, though I still worried that one of the tall fir trees would come crashing through the roof. Then, I put on my raingear and walked out into the storm.

When I’d turned 25, a close friend had given me a photograph of myself. It was a photograph she had taken the Christmas before, at the beach when we had been walking and throwing stones at the seagulls. We’d been talking-examining our general conviction that, as Wordsworth said, the world was too much with us. When we got to the playground by the holly trees, in the snug cove of Vancouver’s Maple Bay, we had both dropped our bags and jumped on the swings. I was trying to pull myself up onto the metal rings when she got our her camera.In the picture, I have my right hand just barely on one ring, my fingers strain to hold it. My right foot clears the sand below and my left arm hangs at my side for balance. The photograph is black and white, and around me stand the prickly holly trees which lend the shot a rim of darkness. That dark is echoed in my dark jacket, my jeans and shoes. What stands out are my pale hands, my pale face, with a smile on it, and the strip of sand below, also pale. Around the edges my friend had written the first five lines of a poem I’d recently written:

God’s mouth dark on my hair
hope blows around me on the sand
I am a girl lighting fires near the sea
Mum’s mouth a porthole underwater
an engine-room that seized.

She gave me this photograph for my 25th birthday. I had been miserably depressed and yet here my lighted face looked hopeful and open. “You can put this on the back of your first book,” she’d said. It looked as though in brooding over our problems, I had either solved them, found the joke in them, or discovered a higher path out of our habitual melancholy. It was quite a gift.

In this spirit–the spirit of transcending something–even as I walked in the midst of it, I opened the door of the cabin, marched determinedly against the wind. I marched to the hairpin turn in the road and towards the Bluffs Provincial Park, about a mile away, which overlooked Active Pass. Sure of my direction, I ignored the trail and began to stride diagonally up the slope softened with decades of pine-needles and tree-rot. When I reached the top, scratched by unseen branches, having tripped more than a few times and having landed on my wet palms, having cut them, I felt some kind of weird calm. Below, hundreds of feet down, the waters of Active Pass hurled themselves onto the rocky beach. Sheet lightening was moving off towards Vancouver Island, striking purple and white onto the ocean. On me the rain fell with hail-like force as I sat under a short fir tree, one I wagered would stand through any wind; I was inside the storm. I slipped, like the moon that dipped beneath the horizon, into a space of supernatural calm. I had transgressed my need for safety from the elements. I was in another place altogether, somewhere hard to map, at the heart of that storm.

* * *

It’s November in New York now. That spell of homesickness from the summer has passed. New Yorkers have long returned from their summer vacations, and the crowds of tourists have thinned out. I’ve returned to graduate school, to teaching freshman composition, and I continue to waitress, off the books, in a Soho bistro. American Thanksgiving is not too far away. New York is at its best in the fall.

Access to the best of New York has been somewhat limited for me, given my budget, but waitressing has its perks. The owner of my restaurant opened a new French bistro in the meatpacking district last week. He invited staff from all three of his other restaurants, to come for a pre-opening drink with some of his A list celebrities and special friends. I met up with three other waitresses there and we sat together on the red leather banquette, under pseudo Parisian tiled columns.The two hours we spent there represent something I love about this city. In the glow of the golden light, watching the bustle of bartenders in white shirts with rolled up sleeves and slicked back hair, under signs and long scratched mirrors advertising French drinks and food, the place seemed to woo and reward us for the many hours we’d spent serving food and drinks till 3 and 4 in the morning. It was spinning a fantastical, seductive romance in which I, too, the student, waitress, nobody, could feel as rich and lovely as the model, actress or writer sitting to my left. Judy Davis, Tim Burton, and Matt Dillon were all sitting at banquettes close by.

When I walked dizzily to the bar to get my next free drink, a woman tapped me on the arm. She introduced herself, “Hi, my name is Alice–you were my waitress once.”

I readied myself for what was coming. It would be something like hearing my own voice on a tape recorder, I felt sure: unsettling.

“I have to tell you, I never remember my server,” she beamed, “but you were so cool, so chill–my sister and I both agreed you were the best server I’ve ever had; I recognized you right away, you were great.” Relieved, I smiled. We toasted each other and I slipped away with my fresh drink.

The friend who gave me the photograph for my birthday has commented on how much happier I seem in New York. It’s true that I love being here for these kinds of fabulous moments, under the charmed lights, to eat the sparkling food and drink the champagne, to be remembered, to be recognized. Although the values of my socialist, Canadian upbringing chastise me, I enjoy this glamor. I enjoy the materiality and the make-believe of it. I am seduced, I let myself be carried away in the dream of loveliness, of deserving, a peculiarly American sense of righteousness. Even at the fringes of this privilege (the real celebrities ate a full complementary dinner in the restaurant; the invited staff shared drinks in the bar) I feel wonderful. Charmed.

The east wasn’t always charming. Careless of, the west’s power—taking its raw, fearsome beauty, for granted—I had argued and cajoled and pestered my parents until they had agreed that I could attend Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, 3,000 kilometers from home. It was what we westerners called, “back east.” In other words, far away and totally foreign. At seventeen, that’s what I’d wanted.

My residence room at Queen’s had been made of industrial, pre-fabricated brick, a monstrosity popularly known as the “Death Star.” From the first moment I detested the place. But I moved in determined to find some elusive freedom. As the semester rolled on my luck didn’t improve. I didn’t meet anyone I liked or trusted. On Halloween I went to see Aliens at the campus cinema. Then, being, naturally, lonely, I mustered up my courage and called an acquaintance from the payphone outside the theater.A blustery autumn wind was kicking leaves up in the city park I hurriedly crossed to get to his house. Kevin was drinking rum and coke. I drank too much. In no time I was seeing double, forming formless words which fell out of my mouth into the nothing air.

No one was home but me and him. Paralyzed by alcohol, lost in a haze of longing for somewhere which felt like home, I let his rough and groping hands travel all over me. I let him have sex with my highly intoxicated, teenage body while my mind left to walk along Pacific shore and drive my old red Datsun through the forested roads.

Later, after he’d left the house and gone to his girlfriend’s, I wondered where I had been at all. Here, in this messy bedroom of another teenager? Or at home, in the woods? If I had stayed in the room with Kevin, would any of what had just happened, have happened? I wasn’t sure. My nostalgia for home meant that I couldn’t see where I was, and this was dangerous. When I returned to the actual coast, in my physical body, eight months later, I could see that it was gorgeous. It was sublime. It offered freedom that the east had taken away. I could not believe that in all my childhood, I had never truly seen what was around me.

Ironically, I still associate the east with a kind of sexualness–eating and drinking, splashing around in the civilly sexualized bars and restaurants of New York. This kind of sexual engagement with my life makes me want to stay here, not flee. Great food and drink, beautiful spaces, bright, funny, diverse friends and lovers are the fabric of rich living. With the occasional professional kudo thrown in life here seems full of potential. That is the east’s–well, New York’s–charm, that it promises so much.

Clearly, the west coast could never make me feel this way. The west promises nothing. The west is raw, fertile, fibrous, base, consuming and destroying in unregulated, uncivilized proportions. It was luck and force of will which had taken me to the heart of that storm on Galiano Island.

When I look in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, I find several predictable definitions for infidel: namely, “unfaithful, unbelieving”. For infidelity: “lack of faith, disbelief in religious matters or a particular religion; unfaithfulness or disloyalty to a friend, superior, especially lack of sexual faithfulness to a partner”.

It’s clear why I would leave the west. And why I would stay on beyond the time it has taken to graduate from an MFA program. I needed a way to surface from the centrifugal suction of depression, to escape from nature’s heady appetite. I need civilization-not civilization as a moral kind of order, but engagement, culture. Like a nineteenth century explorer invited to court, I traded the power of the wild for the power of human ideas and constructions. The price of my defection comes in the form of the tag, infidel. To be unfaithful to the coast makes me a non-believer in its raw ecstatic religion, and non-complying with its sexualized cloying. This seems fine to me. A price worth paying, indeed a price that needs to be paid. I sell my soul.

In New York, it’s virtually impossible to walk as slowly and ponderously as we had in Vancouver. It seems that everyone here could be depressed but everyone is just toobusy to stop and think about it. That is also something I enjoy about life here. The need to be hyper-alert. Somedays I feel like Alex, the main character in Stanley Kubrick’s film, A Clockwork Orange, whose eyes were clamped open while violent and repulsive images, bright lights and noise assaulted him. All around me here are humans handling human life, evidence of our ingeniousness and our cruelty. Everywhere people are running. Here the unspoken motto seems to be, ‘be aggressive and survive’. We–us strangers–are bonded by our understanding that this is what we will do to survive. I will do it and so will you.

In contrast, the morning after the storm on Galiano, after I’d cleaned up the fallen branches and blown scrub from around the cabin and chopped some more wood for my next visit, I’d hitch-hiked to the ferry. I found that ferry service had been moved an old dock on the island’s west side. We hitched rides over there. The air was electric with anticipation. All foot-passengers were talking to each other, comparing the damage, the shortages, the urgency with which we had to leave. We were smiling at each other shyly, as though we were all about to reveal some intimate secrets. We had all been awake in the night. I knew the excitement and yearning we had been feeling. Someone might have been swept away or crushed, or might have succumbed to the seduction of the storm. This kind of intimacy displaced our aggression, fears and excitements. We bonded against the storm, cradled safely in our puny, makeshift society. The land had brought us together in just the way that New York City drives us apart, living out our aggressions, fired through with our fears, ambitions and desires.

The west is not innocent, not passive, not a parcel of natural resources that yields to our demands for wood and water. It’s rather female, in my characterization of it here, the voracious, powerful, unyielding, hungry female. My draw into the bosom of the beyond-human, is homoerotic, violent, instinctual, a breaking into or allowing myself to be drawn back in to a highly charged union. I flee this because I want to be a distinct part of the fabric of culture as it exists, no matter what the price.

Interesting that my draw to what is socially feared is where I find depression, isolation, and ecstatic solitariness. My draw to that which has been sanctioned is where I find intellectual stimulation, society and physical danger.Last night my ex-boyfriend called from Canada. I was sitting on the couch in my newly repainted living room, fiddling with this essay. He asked me how long I would remain in New York, if I had reasons to stay here beyond graduate school. I said I would be staying. He seemed surprised. I thought of Jonathan Raban’s article, now filed away in my filing cabinet. I would not throw it out, just as I could not turn away from my need for Canada and the west coast. I remain faithful, even as I am continually committing the gravest and sometimes most risky infidelity by choosing to live here. But for now, these images and these places exist in my imagination, powerful and seductive, the places I turn to for solace and fierceness of a different order. I am bound to return to these actual places. Right now I return there in my mind only, and this relationship-by-proxy is what I am calling home.


Reading Brenda Hillman


One hot and dusty August, I drove to California. It was 1994, I drove alone, not quite happy but willing to pretend otherwise. Why was I doing this? Where was I really going? What did it all mean? Acres of trellised vines lined the highway; the sun’s strength made the vineyards of Marin County quiver. My destination: Napa Valley Writer’s Festival. Ahead of me a long line of cars snaked through the fields, their drivers came to taste the local wines. I sang along to Iris Dement with the window rolled down.

I attended two dozen or more readings in less than a week. Each night I drove to another vineyard, gathered with other young poets, marveled at the estates (my favorite was the Franciscan Monastery), and drank the free wine. Still, the readings, given by distinguished American poets, bored me. I couldn’t shake my need to act 16, drive fast and blast music, shifting into 5th gear on the highway above San Francisco, as the hot wind blew though my hair. I spent much of my time at readings doodling on a tablet of yellow legal paper. I ached to find a something other than what I was hearing–but what? California seemed dry. In in a county spilling with wine, I didn’t feel intoxicated.

At last, a surprise guest to the festival read a poem which made me look up from my doodling. It went something like this one:

The Servant
–So you whispered to the soul Rise up!
but the soul was not ready.
–Get up! It’s our turn! But that part of the soul
stayed still. So you checked the list
of those who existed
but the soul was not on the list, the soul
responded to none of those things.
Very well, you said. He sank back in his furs.
And you started across the plain to one he loved

The self-consciousness of this poem sent shivers through me. Whoever was playing with the idea of not “existing” was doing a good job. I was hearing something I could relate to–not a perfected self and world, or even the longing for perfection, but a confirmation of confusion. And what was more remarkable, this confusion was not morbid. This poet was a master of patience and invention. I jumped into my car and sped to San Francisco, looking for Brenda Hillman’s books. Somewhere, I found Death Tractates, a second-hand copy, dedicated to someone else, (who would sell such a gift?). My friends left me alone with her; another one of my obsessions, like poetry itself.*Brenda Hillman’s books have been published by Wesleyan and her last book, Loose Sugar, was nominated for the 1998 National Book Circle Award. She graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1976, and has held Guggenheim and NEA fellowships. In spite of these distinctions, her books are not easy to find. I had to mail-order Fortress and Bright Existence from the Grolier Bookstore in Boston.

* * * *

Two years after attending the Napa Valley Writer’s Festival, I moved to New York, where Brenda Hillman’s work appeared again. In the meantime, I had read Death Tractates, liked it, and not understood it. Following what Jeanette Winterson has called “art as the paradox of active surrender”, I had even so tried to imitate one of Hillman’s poems. With mixed results, I have to tell you. Maybe because, unlike Hillman, I didn’t have the stamina to revise a piece 50 times or more. Or because, the closer I got to it, the more I realized how unimitatable it was. I was not a Gnostic, I did not live in Hillman’s landscape. I couldn’t easily find the equivalents in my world.

What I shared with her was the feeling that it is hard to live. Hillman seemed to be devising a way to write into life’s hardness so that its dialectics did not separate even more into painfully fragmented consciousnesses. Instead, she stood inside them, looking and wondering. That seemed bold. Hillman acknowledged this fragmenting, and wrote from these junctions of refusals. At her craft talk at Napa Valley, she had said (swinging her legs from the table she sat on) that she had few principles for writing, maybe four, and one was “revise towards strangeness.” She does sound strange. Like here, at the end of “Little Furnace”:

What is the meaning of this suffering I asked
and the voice– not Christ but between us– said
you are the meaning.
No no, I replied, That
is the shape, what is the meaning.
You are the meaning, it said

This unusual—–and yet so intimate–—voice, set in equally unusual punctuation, talks of relationships (even our relationship with ‘ourselves’) beginning and ending in unexpected places. Things in our lives develop both with and also against what we know. In this way, Hillman’s phrasings and stanzas act as maps to the odd –and always startling– fact that things are often profoundly off-kilter, slipping down to the side when they are supposed to go straight ahead. They also bear (as in ‘carry’) Hillman’s interior life uncompromised by her act of having ‘made art’ of it. From this interiority (the thing poets usually code, or hide), Hillman writes fiercely, with accuracy and tenderness.

* * * *

Brenda Hillman is a small woman; small as in petite. The times I’ve seen her read, maybe half a dozen times, she’s worn floral print dresses. She did at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival in 1996, one warm, blustery fall day when she stood on a large stage in the main tent, and conversationally read, “Male Nipples”. I could see the dress vaguely, even though she was no more than a tiny speck in the distance. I might be wrong, as only the tones of her amplified voice, not her physical image, truly reached us; it was as though the poems were coming out of the sound system not from a person. But I like this idea of her, especially when I read her own comment on poetry’s “vast inwardness [that] pushes out its shadowy flower–language foregrounded as purely as possible, however abstract and symbolic—.” The voice of this ‘shadowy flower’ her voice, is as surprising as her voice on the page. She’s called it, a ‘slightly whiney middle-American female voice.’ Not someone you’d imagine at first who could be so tough.

But truly, while reading, Hillman radiated an unassuming intelligence. Emotion and idea lived powerfully there, which is what I hope to find in all poetry. Hillman’s work also creates a distinctive position in American poetry generally: halfway between the seamless narrative poets and the language poets. She marks a third point. As a triangulating force, her work challenges readers to expect even more from language and from ways of expressing our movements through existence in time, gender, spirit, idea and domesticity. This third point, this “out there,” is something else I love about her work.

* * * *

“Soul”, a frightening word, spills all over Bright Existence. Who can use that word without being run out of town? Hillman admits that at times her work seems inflected with a spiritual ‘pose’ borne of California’s New Age culture. What does “soul” mean? A friend had asked me that one day at the beach when I had put “soul” in a poem. If she was in English class, she said, she’d want to ask that question. I didn’t know, except that “soul” seemed to be what I felt inside me, moving unhappily. Hillman presses on it, gently, firmly, in Bright Existence and Death Tractates.

But in spite of this esotericism, she is a poet of the material world. What at some points is ‘soul’ for her, is equally at other points ‘rat’ ‘burger’ ‘glass’ ‘comb’ ‘tanker’ ‘rage’ ‘sex’ ‘owl’. She is a poet of the domesticated world in which enormous immaterial problems still exist (I think of, “We were clerks in a shop at the edge of America;”). At important moments, she is also a poet of the female world, like here: “but before she turns her rage onto the world, the violent / lords must give her the body of a woman which is not easy (“First Thought”). She renames the Western antagonism between body and mind so that it can be renegotiated as ‘bright existence’ / ‘dark existence’, thus displacing a linear conception of being with a more spatial one. The gap between them (the ” / “) she calls the split. The painful place gets filled with ‘matter’, ‘traveler’, ‘recycling’, ‘shoes’, ‘divorce’, ‘California’ (of course) and so on. She has commented that the dashes (“–”) which become more present as she publishes more books, hold sense of process rather than completion. Most of all, most compelling to me, is that she returns her gaze over and over to the desire to feel complete as it jousts with the impossibility of this ever happening (“wanting/the form for which it was created”).

* * * *

In New York, it was my instructor who suggested Hillman’s work to me. When I looked at Death Tractates again, these two years later, I understood much more of it, proving that Doris Lessing was right: sometimes we’re not ready for the things that will speak to us most strongly and must come back to them later.In fact, it became my favorite companion for a while. Hillman’s poems and I went to the coffee shop every morning for the better part of a year. I had decided that the best part of reading poetry, is not so much as Robert Adams has said about photography, trying to make the suffering make sense. I didn’t like the imperialistic ring to that, as though our struggles can be made to accept economic or moral value. No, the best part about reading poetry is in hearing all the sounds, especially the excruciating ones, and the silent ones, so that what has been hidden, twisted, blanked over can have a presence. Presence, mind, not worth. That is much harder to get at. Hillman seems more expert at sidestepping the imperialistic declaration than me. In “Old Ice”, with a rare aphoristic flare, she writes,

Once it seemed the function of poetry
was to redeem our lives.
But it was not. It was to become
indistinguishable from them.

Writing talks to the effort of becoming, which is a continual act.

In my own work, I didn’t want declarations of value. I wanted some frightening evidence of my existence. I needed a lexicon to describe something other than what I was supposed to be– to describe my interiority, perhaps. Obviously, I was not an imperative self, but some other kind—–but what? Even writing this article, it is hard not to adore Hillman, who has given me the key to my own poems, and to talk only of how I relate them to my own process. The kind of presence Hillman’s poems calls up is frightening because it is so loyal to her idiosyncratic self, and so, we’re unprepared for its insight, its language, its terms. And the poems aren’t obscure, in spite of their difficulty. One feels she has a delicately woven logic, tough as sinew, running through the poems, even if the absolute ‘meaning’ of this logic is elusive. Over those morning coffees, as the crumbs of my scone dropped carelessly into the creases of Bright Existence, I could also say that I felt myself existing, in a coffee-shop, in New York while I read them. Even just for ten minutes a day. And that made some difference.

* * * *

Finally, I can tell you in another way what it’s like to read Hillman. Once, I lived alone at the top of an old house in Mount Pleasant, a neighborhood we dubbed Most Unpleasant after its prostitutes and junkies. My neighbors downstairs, were a newly married couple, he a writer, she a gardener. They had painted the house bright yellow, and planted lilacs, lilies, mint — a lush perennial garden– around the front porch. Upstairs in our run-down opulence, I would sit on a stool listening to Bach. In the long, buttery light of sunset that flooded my kitchen, grief and existence sprang strangely from the pages, thirsting to know more, to be more, if that is possible. To be more as though consciousness and a kind of existential (female?) grief could live personified, like love and desire have been personified, in poems. Like my jade plant which turned itself round to get into that strong evening light, Hillman turned around inside the poems to get a good look at where she was standing. And I turned something inside me around so that I could pace the room with Hillman, to try to be with the words as they worked. We made a triple shadow privately revolving to try to see the private view. From December Shadow

Then how to address the place where the soul was not.
Should you have said, standing next to the trench,
this should have been you?

Hillman’s language builds a world that exists entirely simultaneous with what we normally take as real: the world of physical objects, of ideas, errands, struggle, love. Only, Hillman’s world demands not that I read in, but that I read out of it. No coded other side waits for decoding; the coded other side already faces inside out, like a wet dishwashing glove hanging up to dry once duty is done. Its powdery whiteness seems bright and strange after the yellow rubbery stuff, but is just as interesting– interesting, too, to see this regular thing, this poem-washing-up-glove turned right side round and inactive, like a sculpture, like a performance. A new way to see things.

How traitorous I felt, when at last I realized that the other poets’ search for identity bored me. At least, that kind of search bored me. The poets’ technical mastery was unquestionable, impressive. The search for Truth that haunted their poems just didn’t move me as much as I had hoped; it stacked up like dirty dishes that could be cleaned, but refused to sparkle. Or else they couldn’t adequately talk of the gnawing hunger of their users.

Moreover, and more troubling, was that this kind of lyric seemed to wait for me, too, like a nasty troll, every time I felt anxious about my own writing. In fact, I had come to the writer’s festival to find a way around this little monster. The troll commanded me to reveal the Truth, in straight, ‘simple’ narrative poems and quit fooling around with my language trickery. An aphoristic last couple of lines wouldn’t hurt, it said. When I wrote that kind of poem, I could pass as a poet.But I kept failing this test. That the truths and identities we search for do not necessarily reside in one stable reality, seems apparent today. At 25, however, when I’d sit in my kitchen at a loss to describe my feeling of not quite being on the earth, I had forgotten that.

On a blistering, blustery afternoon, in the fall of 1996, from the stage where later Philip Levine would read the funny poems of working class life, Hillman chose to read “Male Nipples,” a poem in a series of connected fragments. Each hangs on the page between two dots, one above, one below, that mark it off from other fragments in the poem. There’s a lot of white space; not much to prompt the fragment into familiarity: here’s one of them:

convinced him to take only
his shirt off. They were, well, one
was brown and one was like the inside of a story–

In, what she’s called, a ‘slightly whiney middle-American female voice,’ she began her reading by admitting the poem’s difficulty and she did not retract its difficulty, even in her tone. She then read it conversationally. The poem –logic, image, and emotion– worked– transparently, like a fairy tale. That, too, seemed bold and mysterious.


Tokyo Cowboy


Canada Post hired me in January, and at first I worked at a station in my own neighbourhood, meaning I left my house at 6:48 a.m. to arrive at 6:52 a.m. Life seemed fair; I could have been posted in the suburbs. It lasted only two weeks, but back in those days, feeling optimistic, I went to see Tokyo Cowboy, Kathy Garneau's first feature film, in which one of the characters is a postie in full regalia—blue jacket, grey pants and navy blue satchel, embodying all that I had yet to become: fully uniformed, excellent at sorting his mail and familiar with all the houses and occupants on his walk. I realized that posties symbolize Canada to me almost as much as those relentless Mounties do. Maybe it's the corporate logo you see everywhere, or maybe their reputation for friendliness, or their omnipresence (ever counted how many post office trucks you see in a day?), or perhaps the distances they travel and the weather (not to mention the dogs) they negotiate to deliver the mail. Even if it raises stamp prices too often and delays important mail, Canada Post (it suddenly seemed to me) was one of the mother-structures of the Canadian Identity, invisible and essential. "Hey, that's me," I whispered as the postie on screen walked into a bar, in uniform, and ordered a beer. In the film, a Japanese boy obsessed with cowboys flies to rural B.C. to meet his childhood cowgirl/penpal. She's grown up and got a fine arts degree from Vancouver, moved back to her home town, and moved in with her girlfriend, but has yet to come out to her community. Her mother tries to get the low-down, or at least get her daughter together with the nice Japanese boy. Meanwhile, the Japanese boy appoints the postie as his cowboy sensei. The climactic scene, at the Hallowe'en dance, underlines the racial, sexual and relational tensions in the community. The postie, dressed as a First Nations chief, meets a First Nations youth who demands that he de-mask and defeather, while the Japanese boy masquerades as a geisha girl and winds up outside behind a pickup truck, kissing the cowgirl's girlfriend, and the cowgirl, enraged and armed, manages to shoot the Japanese boy in the arm. Not shouting about being Canadian, but not concealing it either, not making an overly pointed display of discriminations, but portraying them as they normally occur, this film got my heart and my interest. Caroline Adderson, a friend of Garneau's and winner of the 1994 Governor General's award for fiction, wrote the screenplay and, believe it or not, the next day at work—refreshed by this good flick—as I sorted mail into the lock-boxes of an east Vancouver housing complex, I noticed that the Book of the Month envelope was going to none other than Caroline Adderson. "Hey, do you know who this is?" I asked my postie-trainer. "Nah," he said, not caring much more after I enlightened him. I folded and wrestled the envelope into its box and scraped the skin off my knuckles in the process.