In the 1990s, I was a guest artist at a summer camp in a deeply troubled neighborhood in Philadelphia. The brick row-house that housed the Neighborhood Center was across the street from Norris Square, a small, scruffy, city park. Each morning, abandoned drug paraphernalia had to be removed before our campers sat down for their opening circle on the park’s dusty ground. Along with some great community building activities I learned from the camp director Kathleen Luchtan and the wonderful … and educational interactions… I had with the residents of that “Empowerment Zone” neighborhood, I experienced the power of storytelling to validate and empower the listeners.
Upon arrival one sunny morning, I found myself in the midst of an intense drama. One of the teen-age assistants, hired under a city program called Phila-Job, had disappeared. She had not come home the night before, and her mother had waited till that morning to call the police. When I arrived, the Center was abuzz with Philadelphia police officers questioning her friends while other teens talked to each other trying to figure out where she was or who might have kidnapped her. Members of the neighborhood were out looking for her and there was a constant flow of people checking in and out of the Center. There were two local women, working with us through Ameri-Corps, spearheading the community response. This was a parallel search (and no doubt a more invested and informed one) to the official police investigation. There was great fear for the missing girl’s wellbeing.
I stayed with the younger children, doing storytelling and visual art projects as the staff, the “Phila-Job” teen assistants, the two Ameri-Corps women, and the police officers were all engaged in trying to find her. This went on for most of the morning. And then they found her, the two local women and her friends, not the police. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
Late that morning, our camp-community gathered together to re-set the day in the back yard “safe-space” of that old row house. After we all settled down on our folding chairs, Kathleen asked me to tell a story. Without thinking about it, I began to tell the Haitian folktale, “Tipingee,” the story of a young girl who is saved by her community. Its participatory chant allows everyone in the circle to help save the girl. I can still see us sitting in the fenced-in yard and the two Ameri-Corps women sitting there nodding at each other as the story unfolded, their, postures changing from an exhausted slump to alert, knowing pride. I can see their smiles and the smiles of so many in that circle as they realized that I was telling them their story, that they, that very morning, had taken action to save one of their own. For me, It was a moment of deep understanding of the power of storytelling to touch us, to validate us, and to heal.
I have since that day used Tipingee’s story, along with other stories, in times when events unfolding in the “real” world were impact us and my listeners. For instance, two days after the horrendous shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, I was scheduled to give “warm-fuzzy” holiday program for adults and children in a coffee-house/art gallery. I found myself not changing the program, but definitely shifting how I framed it and told it. The children had a great time. The adults, hearing the same stories, heard deeper resonances that touched on, but did not name, the tragedy that was on all of our minds. They, too, enjoyed the program, but for different reasons.
I facilitate a workshop called On the Moment: Storytelling in Times of Crisis. I first led the workshop at the Sharing the Fire storytelling conference in 2002, principally as a response to 9/11. Unfortunately we now seem to be in a time of ongoing crisis. There have been a series of natural disasters and, as a rescue worker who came to NYC described the 9/11 attack, to me, “non-natural disasters” as well. One of the great gifts of storytelling is its flexible immediacy as well as its ability to address difficult topics indirectly through metaphor. As storytellers, our ability to respond to what is happening, both in the world and in the listeners who have gathered to hear story, presents us with the opportunity to not only entertain, but to ease minds and hearts, strengthen individuals and create community. What kinds of stories, what themes, what images can we bring when asked to show up for our listeners when the world is falling down? Storytellers know!
(for information on the workshop, contact me: email@example.com) The story referenced is: “I’m Tipingee, She’s Tipingee, We’re Tipingee Too,” a story from The Magic Orange Tree by Diane Wolkstein)
We are heading into a week that features two holidays about re-birth, Passover and Easter. There are tiny purple flowers blooming in the garden and the rose bushes and trees are putting out hesitant buds. Here in New Mexico, life peeks out after the cold drought of winter. Persephone is signaling from the Underworld, letting us know she is on her way to rejoin her mother Demeter to insure that Life may continue. It is always good to note that life may continue.
Why do I feel the need to repeat that mantra? Perhaps to affirm the possibility, assure my readers and myself that despite the auxiliary verb “may,” there is a glimmer of hope, an actual chance, perhaps even good odds that, yes life may continue.
I want to tell you about a project with teens that I was asked to be a part of this month. And to share with you a beautiful essay by Michael Tallon, These Magic Kids, that is about the young people we’ve been watching take the reins in the fight for life here in our beleaguered country. My takeaway from watching these amazing “children” who are raising their strong voices in defiance of a kind of death cult that seems to have ridden off with the sanity of much of this country is: Life may continue, perhaps stronger and wiser than ever.
I’ve been listening and talking to a number of young folks these past couple weeks, not just the ones in the news, but in the streets before during and after the March for our Lives here in Santa Fe this past Saturday. I want to tell you about some kids I met at a conference held by FCCLA, a national life skills and leadership organization for youth.
I was asked to be a judge at a state wide competition where some of the FCCLA members made presentations of projects they’d been working on. Winners would go on to the national competition. I was one of two of adults judging the presentations of a project three students did to raise awareness of FCCLA in their schools and communities. There were an 8th grade African-American boy from Tucumcari, NM and two Latinx high-school girls from Albuquerque.
These students created PSAs, social-media campaigns, before-and after surveys, workshops, and other events to get the word out about FCCLA. They brought portfolios describing their processes, goals and results and they made oral presentations about them. They were chosen to come to this state competition at the Marriott Pyramid Hotel in Albuquerque. We may have been in a fake “pyramid,” but there was nothing fake about these kids.
These three had not had the privilege of the kind of educational and community resources that the Parkland students have. But they have the same passion, focus, drive, and determination we’ve been seeing on TV. And they obviously have at least one fine teacher-advocate for their futures. They were well spoken, organized, focused, and sweet as they could be.
When I asked the 8th grade boy from Tucumcari why he chose to join FCCLA, he replied that he wanted to learn how to comfortably talk to strangers. I know he said more than that, but I was struck by this young African-American taking the step of working on the skill to look the world in the eye, not with fear…which leads to so much anger…but with calm, friendly confidence. He and the two young women from Albuquerque are my in-person representatives of this new generation of Americans. I’m so glad they are here. Let’s help them.
(This blog was written in response to a brilliant article by Michael Tallon about the students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The link to his article is below. This photo of Emma Gonzalez is from the article.)
Several days ago, the word “shithole” was spewed from our nation’s capital and rocketed around the world. This was in reference to certain countries, certain populations, certain kinds of people. While this latest insult to humankind has been ricocheting through the world’s consciousness, I have been working on my annual love stories concert to be performed next month at the Provincetown Playhouse in NYC. The Heart of the Matter, which I am creating with poet/bassist Larry Roland, is an hour of stories and poetry about the human capacity for love. Not romance, but the fierce love that creates connection, holds life sacred, and preserves the world.
I’ve the good fortune to be staying this month in a small condo on Florida’s Gulf coast. At around 2 PM yesterday, while working on the love stories program (and fending off thoughts of shitholes and such), I was suddenly compelled to get up and leave the computer. Without changing my clothes, not even putting on lipstick, which I generally do to face the world, I grabbed my wallet and my keys and headed out. I walked down Gulf Boulevard to JD’s, my favorite bar and restaurant and there I lived “the heart of the matter.”
JD’s sits on a narrow stretch of barrier beach between the Gulf of Mexico and Florida’s Inter-Coastal Waterway. On the front veranda of the old wooden building perches a ten-foot high, blue and pink wooden octopus with a smiling mermaid hanging out on one of its tentacles. When you enter JD’s, you are in a world of free-form funk with a slight buzzy edge to it. The restaurant is festooned with permanent Christmas lights, fishing nets and tons of seashore kitsch.
There are three rooms: the piano bar up front, a laid back dining room in the middle, and the Back Porch, a bar which rocks, even at 10 in the morning. What Happens on the Porch Stays on the Porch proclaims the sign next to the list of all-day happy hour drinks. The Back Porch is where I hang out when I go to JD’s. There is something magical about the place, which attracts a community of fun loving and pretty open odd balls. It is a safe space to go and listen to great live music, dance with or without a partner, and to meet some good folks. I always feel better about human beings when I go there.
So yesterday I walked over to the street behind JD’s to check out what kind of music was coming from the Back Porch that afternoon. Drums. Not a drum set, but Congas. Heart music, masterfully played. All right! I stood outside, watching the drummer through the window. Yeah, some fine music being offered up by a big man, his voice, his hands and his drums sending sweet sounds into the air. I went in and stood against the door to get my bearings, to get a sense of who he was and who was hanging out on the Back Porch that afternoon. It felt really good.
I looked to see where I might sit down as there were no empty tables. An African-American couple was perched on wooden stools at a high, narrow table. On the other side of the table, there were three empty stools. I walked over and asked if I could join them. Warm vibes and welcoming smiles greeted me. We were joined about an hour later by two Puerto Rican sisters recently moved to Largo from the Bronx. With them was their colleague, an Irish-American, Special-Ed. teacher. So there we were, the five of us, talking, dancing, sharing food and drink, sharing laughter.
When Red, the drummer, launched in to “Sweet Home, Alabama,” I kicked off my shoes, got up and began to dance. No one was on the dance floor but me. No one joined me. It was me and Red and the music. When the song was over, there was applause from around the room. I bowed to Red, turned around and bowed to the assembled Back Porch regulars and sat back down with my new best friends. The waitress came over and told me a man wanted to buy me a drink. I hesitated, then accepted and went over to talk to him. He was in a motorized wheel chair but said that when he is in his manual wheelchair, he dances. I said, “Well, maybe we can do that next time.” A young woman at the bar grabbed my hand and said, “You dance so fucking good!” She and her boy friend and I danced together a bit later. I told her that she danced “fucking good” too.
Now here’s the thing: we were all kinds of people-different ages, different backgrounds, different “colors.” We were a rainbow perched on our wooden bar stools, sharing stories, photos, even a few minutes of on line conversation with one of the Perez sister’s children and their new puppy up on the Quantico marine base in Virginia. I write all this because the instant community formed in that Back Porch safe space gives lie to the “shithole” image of America smacking us around at the moment.
So what’s this got to do with the “heart of the matter?” I like to quote Anne Frank. She wrote in that precious diary of hers that she believed that human beings, in their hearts, are really good….that “in the end it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end.” At the heart of the matter is love.
I say amen to that. And I also say, if you start to lose hope, head for the Back Porch. And if you can’t find one in your neighborhood, create it.
P.S.: As I didn’t take any photos yesterday, here is one I took in Salvador, Brazil at a festival in the Pelourinho. Drums, dancing, people gathered to celebrate life.
The bones of my 1881 apartment building have been exposed. A structural shoring-up demanded of the landlord by the City. The subway below shakes the building. One September day in 2001, a low flying plane also shook the building. I remember a day many years ago when a section of my living room wall tumbled in.
Periodically our notorious landlord is forced to “improve” the building, or at least make it safe to live in. They replace the old red bricks with grey blocks. Sturdier, I am sure, but the history is lost. This month, chunks of an internal wall are being replaced by cinder blocks. But some of the bricks hold on. “We’re still here,” they silently proclaim, “crumbling but still standing”
In old buildings, the walls hold memory. In old people, memory, too, is held, not just personal, but societal, historical, spiritual. I’ve been in this building since 1971. It holds memory of me, or at least I imagine that those original bricks do. Over the years there have been periodic replacements of structural elements along with the change in the tenant society from old Italians to young artists to young wall street types and now to a frequent roll-over of NYU students. But some of us old ones are still here, two neighbors even longer than I. We are still here. And miraculously, so is this shaky tenement.
I like old buildings in old places. Rome. Jerusalem. And yes, Greenwich Village. There is a felt sense present, both horizontal and vertical. The time line spreads out awareness and adds deep layers to experience. At least for me. At least for me.
This Summer Solstice I awoke early, early enough to go out into the garden and, if not to sing the sun rise, at least to sing the sun’s appearance through the trees and over the house next door. I go out often to sing up the Sun, though not as often as some folks who know in their hearts that we co-create life with all of nature and that if someone doesn’t sing the sun up each morning, it might not return. Serious business, living on a fully alive planet earth in a fully alive and interconnected universe.
So there I was in the garden singing a song to the sun. As I began, “Morning Sun, Morning Sun; Come my way, come my way,” I was joined in song by one of the large crows that visit the garden for a splash-about in the birdbath. Well, they don’t really splash-about. They stand at the edge of the bowl, an imposing presence, dipping their big beaks into the water.
Anyway, that morning, when I was singing in the garden, a crow started to answer me. Or perhaps he was bringing me a message. Some bit of Crow knowledge. Maybe he was simply commenting on my voice the way we comment on theirs. So I sang “Morning Crow! Morning Crow! Come my way, come my way.” He did not come my way, but did put out a loud “caw caw.” So I continued the song. “Morning Crow, Morning Crow! You deliverin’ a message here today?” Another squawking “caw” and he flew away.
I don’t think of myself as a bird person. But I do try to pay attention. And I remember to pay attention especially when I’m out in nature. That is why we all need to spend time out there, to practice paying attention.
Here’s an old story of mine about a bird. I was walking down Highway 1 in Big Sur, California some years ago, heading from my cousin’s cabin where I was staying, to do a work exchange at Esalen Institute about a mile south along that gorgeous stretch of California Coast. I was enjoying the early morning air, filled with the scent of wild fennel, my eyes feasting on the Ventana Wilderness rising up to my left and the cobalt Pacific down below to my right, when I noticed that over my head was a red tailed hawk which had flown low and had begun to circle me. It was so low I could see its feathers, its beak. I just stopped dead in my tracks. I watched it as it reeled and circled. Then I started getting a little nervous and thought: maybe this guy is looking for lunch in my hair! I wasn’t too sure. The Hawk circled and circled. And circled.
You know how we human beings always have to be some where? We are so busy- busy all the time and that morning I was on my way to work. So, I thanked the bird for the gift of its presence and I walked away from that circling. I walked out of his circle.
The hawk flew on ahead of me and when I got down the road a ways, he began to circle me again. This time I stood still. I had no where I had to be but there. I watched until that hawk had finished with me. When he flew on off, I bowed and walk on down to Esalen.
That is a story I’ve told various times, the last time being this past Saturday night for a Solstice program I gave in a small amphitheater in Elena Gallegos Park on Sandia mountain overlooking Albuquerque, NM and the Rio Grande Valley. The sun was setting in its New Mexican, fireball form over the mountains west of us. There was a breeze, which kept the gnats at bay. We were up there to honor the Sun, the Light, and all our Relations. That is, the animals, birds, rocks, rivers, grasses, trees, even those gnats!
I began to tell my Big Sur Hawk story. I pointed to the sky, directing my listeners’ eyes to the hawk which had honored me that glorious morning so long ago in Big Sur. I lowered my arm and eyes and I noticed that the audience’s eyes stayed looking up. Some began to point. I looked up again. There above me was a red-tail hawk circling, right then, right there. The story of my California memory turned into the story of that New Mexico moment.
Had this hawk come to listen to the story about his California cousin? He stayed till I finished it, then flew away. Was he simply curious about the gathering of two-leggeds sitting on stone benches listening to the speaking, singing, and dancing one in front of them who was pointing skyward? Or was he, perhaps, bringing a message? I do not claim to know the answer to those questions. I merely report what happened.
I live in lower Manhattan, a mile and a half north of the World Trade Center.
From the almost floor to ceiling window in my kitchen, I have a fabulous view – unobstructed- south east, south, south west. From that window, in 1971, I watched the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center go up. On September 11, 2001, I watched them collapse.
That morning, I was at my computer, trying to sort out which of the many NYC mayoral candidates to vote for in that day’s primary, when a low flying aircraft—sounding very much like a roaring demon set free from the underworld—flew directly overhead, shaking the foundation of my one hundred year old apartment building. I thought it was some idiot helicopter pilot showing off. It was not. And that plane, the first of four we’d be seeing in the news that day, didn’t just shake my building—it shook the world. The war was in my backyard.
While the horror and chaos of Ground Zero unfolded, we New Yorkers poured out of our apartments and began to do what we could to set things right. I have lots of stories about all that. Here is one.
The day after the attack, I went over toward the Hudson River, a few blocks to the west of me. The road along it, West Street, had become a major highway for rescue and recovery vehicles. I found myself at the corner of Christopher and West. That corner is iconic. Decades ago, it was the old water front… replete with gangs, including the notorious Hudson Dusters; then it became..and still is… the destination of the enormous Gay Pride Parade, Christopher Street having been a center of Gay culture for years. But in the aftermath of the attack, the open spaces on either side of West Street became a bustling center for sorting and distributing food, drink, medical supplies, clothing, and other needed items for the rescue, recovery and clean up crews. And the street was the main artery downtown.
As I walked down Christopher toward the River, I heard cheering and whistling, and clapping. When I got to West Street, I discovered several dozen of the local folks standing at the corner, cheering on the workers going to …and coming from Ground Zero. Some of them had signs: “Thank you! ” “God Bless You!” “We love you!” So, I joined them.
Shortly after I got there, I watched a National Guard unit roll by. I stood cheering with my Greenwich Village neighbors as the army made its way down West Street to Ground Zero. To be cheering the army as it rolled into NYC was odd enough; but to be standing at that iconic corner, which in the old days had been known for its “leather bars” and less than straight prostitution, to be standing there, cheering the US Army…was mind blowing.
And then this vision: rolling south was the biggest piece of heavy machinery I’d ever seen. Not a tank, but a huge earth mover. And who was driving this down West Street? A young African American soldier, a woman, her hair in intricate cornrows. And with a free hand she gave a thumbs up to all of us who stood cheering and clapping. This small woman in army fatigues, driving this enormous bull dozer. I never cross that street at that corner without remembering that moment and that soldier.
For weeks and months, people stood at the corner of Christopher and West….cheering the fire trucks, police, military vehicles, sanitation trucks, all the vehicles going up and down the highway. There was only one piece of business at the south end of that road: the “Pit,” the Trade Center site, Ground Zero. And since then, each year on 9/11, a group of people stand on the median strip of that road, holding thank-you signs and waving flags and clapping. And still the police, fire, sanitation and anyone who understands what those folks are doing there, honk in response. The corner was officially designated by the City as Point Thank You. There is a sign there for the tourists to read.
As for me….When I am in NYC on the morning of 9/11, I go out to the end of the Christopher Street pier and sit quietly. I look at the river and harbor, I look at the Statue of Liberty, I look at the empty slot in the sky line….now with its new tower filling some of that gap. And I breathe. Then I join the group at Point Thank You and wave and clap and cry. It is a good thing to do.
“Teacher! Teacher! Thank You!”: A Subway Platform Blessing
Saturday, as I descended into the steamy W 4th Street station to catch the C-train to Central Park, I was a grumpy mess. Existential shakiness compounded by a heat dome and humidity. And having to rush. I’m not good at rushing in the morning.
I walked to the uptown end of the platform, knowing just where to stand to get into the exact car from which to exit at the precise staircase to emerge on to the street just where I needed to be to enter the Park. The sign of a real New Yorker…positioning yourself on the train for a quick exit. (That, and knowing how to get cross town on the subway. Sometimes, in the big city, it is these small things that count.)
As I looked around at all the many weekend change-of-service signs and the flashing delay warnings on the digital kiosk, wondering if my problem would not be so much position in space as in time, a woman walked toward me, smiling. She looked vaguely familiar.
She said, “I know you”
I said, “I know you too.” But I couldn’t place her. Chinese, I thought. 40ish. In a tee shirt with Egyptian figures on it, capri pants and sunhat . And that smile.
“English,” she said “You teach English. Washington Heights. Thank you. Thank you!”
“Yes!” that’s where I knew her from. It was odd, though. Most of my students were Dominicans, with a trio of Russian doctors one year just to shake things up a bit. And once a young woman from China who’d told the story of her grandmother’s bound feet…much to the shock of the Dominicans. But this was not that woman And all that had been years ago. Years.
“English. You help us so much. How is N.Y.U.?”
Whoa! “Good, “ I said. I am still teaching there.”
“Central Park,” she said. “You tell stories. We have lots of fun.”
Double whoa! I vaguely recall that one year, a group of my students from Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation came to hear me tell stories in Central Park. She remembered. It had been at least 10 years.
We chatted. She was so excited to see me. I was excited to see her.
“Thank you, thank you,” she said again as the C roared into the station. Then, as I turned to enter it, “Bless you,” she called out.
“And you. Thank you and bless you,” I said and stepped into the car.
No more existential shakiness. And why be grumpy? I was on my way to see two of my friends tell stories at the statue of Hans Christian Andersen –where I would be performing the following Saturday…my 24th year in the Andersen storytelling series. And a lovely woman spotted me waiting in my chosen place on the platform for what I had thought would be the perfect car to make a quick exit. Instead, that precise place put me in the path of an angel who reminded me of who I am and who gave me a gorgeous blessing. Great way to start a Saturday.
For the 2016 National Storytelling Conference this summer, I’ve been asked to give a workshop on using storytelling to teach language. This will be a sample lesson from one of the graduate courses I teach for the Teaching/Learning Department of New York University. I taught ESL to adult immigrants in New York City for over ten years as well as English and performance skills to foreign students at Santa Fe University of Art and Design the past three summers using storytelling as a core method. Here is a blog I wrote for The National Storytelling Network’s website about why storytelling is so effective for teaching languages to any age, for any level.
by Regina Ress
By the age of three or so, most of us can speak our native language. We’ve learned its basic structure, a lot of the vocabulary, and, remarkably, how to play with it to create fluid sentences. It is not memorized: it is “acquired.” How do we do that? The great linguist, Noam Chomsky, has suggested a kind of built in “Black Box, ”something inherent in all human beings that fosters this fundamental and oh-so necessary skill. What triggers that first learning? Listening to language. That is why is it so important for babies to be talked to, to be read to, to be told stories!
Because language learning begins with listening and speaking, storytelling is a fabulous tool for teaching language, whether one’s first or tenth. Along with telling and listening to the basic narrative, traditional storytelling often has repetition and rhythm, audience participation such as “call and response,” audience involvement through making predictions or suggestions during the telling, and often some opportunity for role play. From the original text come fluid telling, extemporaneous responses, and opportunities for linguistic improvisation. Reading and writing can be brought in as extensions, of course; however it is the oral-aural-oral experience which so directly opens the way for linguistic learning.
Besides enhancing the practice of the “four skills” (listening, speaking, reading and writing), storytelling teaches vocabulary, functions (making requests, asking questions, etc), and grammar.
It engages the “whole learner” and the “multiple intelligences.” And it is a great way to create community, encourage cross cultural awareness and provide a safe space for personal expression.
I am a big advocate of the use of folk tales. Because they are simple in form while not being simplistic in theme and can be told with simple to complex vocabulary and grammatical structures, they are readily accessible and engaging to all ages and all learning levels. As they come from all cultures and often address shared problems such as dealing with the wily foxes and dangerous crocodiles of life, they are inclusive and can address the students experiences and challenges. The stories and the activities spun from them (including personal stories based on them) definitely help to promote a communicative classroom. And it makes teaching and learning enjoyable.
Join me at the NSN National Storytelling Conference in Kansas City for some language learning pedagogy wrapped in the form of storytelling fun.
Come learn more about this topic at Regina’s workshop at the 2016 National Storytelling Conference, July 21-24, in Kansas City, Missouri. www.storynet.org/conferenc
In the fall of 1970 I moved into a semi derelict building right next to the old Russian & Turkish Baths on East 10th Street. A group of us were intrepidly (or foolishly) living on the block between First Avenue and Avenue A at a time when to cross A was sort of a guaranteed mugging at knife point. We did not cross A. Nor did we venture into our block’s most famous building, the last of the old NYC bathhouses. It was not until the late1980’s that I finally braved it. I was immediately hooked. Welcome to Eastern Europe in NYC, 1892! Welcome to the Baths.
Today’s NY Times (1/30/16) featured an article about the Baths. Well, I did live next to it in that long-ago time. And I finally ventured in for a good sweat, a hose-down scrub from Agnes, or a Platza in the Russian Room. From the article I see it has both changed and not changed. Here’s a story I wrote about it back in 1992.
THE BATHS: Today, after appointments uptown, downtown, and back to midtown, I ended my day in the East Village at a kind of duck down, out of town, heat up and cool down at the Tenth Street baths. I climbed the crumbling cement front steps into the old tenement, walked down the dark, narrow hall leading into a truly other world. This bath-house is, I think, the last remaining of the old “real” baths in the City. There is nothing trendy, pretty, cute, chic, or particularly comfortable here. Not one gold cupid. No no! I was not at a “spa;” I was at Ladies’ Day at the Russian & Turkish Baths.
On the first floor there are rows of bunk beds and lockers in a dark room (half the lights don’t work, or are simply not turned on.) Women in badly fitting cotton robes lounge about, moving slowly, or napping on cots. If you want, there is a “restaurant” where you can get health juices or chicken soup and smoked fish, depending on your orientation. I undress quickly, donning the somewhat tattered robe and enormous rubber slippers issued to me when I showed my pre-paid, punch card.
I descend the stairs into the basement and enter a steamy, tiled room. It is draped with naked female bodies of varying and often quite amazing sizes, shapes and colors. Old Ukrainian women from the neighborhood, young Black models with beads and cowrie shells bedecking their bellies, a number of young Soviet immigrants speaking Russian, a group of beauties chatting in Italian, an anorexic 65 year old. Like me, she’s a regular.
Some women have green mud on their faces. A couple Black women look truly odd with great dark eyes peering out of gray green masks framed by long dreads or braids. Some women have bodies covered with black mud. Some women sit rubbing their arms and legs with abrasive sponges. We are in the ante-room of the “Baths.” I hang up my issued robe and join the naked ladies. (There are a couple days a week that are co-ed. I’m not interested in going somewhere to sweat in a bathing suit.)
There is a wooden sauna available. Not many people use it. More popular, and hotter, is the “steam” room…a small room with wooden benches and a set of old, hissing apartment radiators. It is very hot in there. Anyone who has lived in NYC tenement know how much steam those radiators give off. I go there first to open my pores for the real goal, the Russian Room.
The Russian Room. A big square room with a stone furnace taking up one quarter of it. Enormous stones, cemented together. God knows what they burn in there! Whatever, it is HOT. There are three tiers of cement benches, over which a few wooden slabs have been places for brave souls to sit on. There is a pipe running around the center row, with a spigot every 4 or 5 feet. Buckets receive icy cold water….rarely does anyone sit on the top tier. Too hot.
Some women sit with their feet in the buckets. When I first started going, the buckets were wooden. They’ve been replaced with plastic ones. Not as authentic, but probably a bit more sanitary. Every few minutes, a woman stands, take a bucket and pours the ice cold water over her head. Me too, you bet! This is the best.
Really! This is the best. The room is built of stained cement looking a bit like an abstract painting in sepia and grey. There are cement covered beams and some old wooden ones showing too. The air, thick with steam, too, looks like opaque cement. And on the wall, two signs declare “save water.” Joke. The spigots are rarely turned off; water is a constant in here. The sound of it, the feel of it. That’s the point. It’s the Baths.
When I am too hot, I duck back out to the ante-room for a sit. I look around. There is an icy cold tiled swimming pool. People plunge in to recover from the intense heat of the Russian Room. The walls are tiled too, and along with tiled curlicues and such are the words “James Stravato Tile & Marble.” I wonder how many years ago Mr. Stravato did the job. I wonder how many of the old tenements here on the Lower East Side have his tiles. Possibly he also put in some of the marble fireplaces. (When I lived on Cornelia Street in 1967, in my tiny hole of an apartment there was a Carrera Marble fireplace. The Italians, like the rest of us, have interesting priorities. I was told that when they came to America, many of them brought marble for fireplaces.)
Generally when I go to the Baths, I get a hose down scrub from Agnes, a woman whose thickly blue veined legs look like that old Italian marble and whose slab of a marble “massage table” sits alongside the pool. She uses a garden hose and a seriously abrasive spongie-thing to give you a good cleaning. But today I decide to spring for a Platza, a therapeutic scrub with oak leaves.
My masseuse, a young woman, leads me back into the Russian Room. I lie on the massage table right next to the cement furnace. She covers my head and face with a towel. She proceeds to scrub and pummel me with an oak leaf scrubber which looks like a feather duster made of leaves. She scrubs with very hot water. She slaps. She rinses with buckets of cold water. More scrub. Then a good massage. Roll over. Same on the other side. All this takes about 20 minutes. Time is suspended; It feels like an hour. The woman finishes with a bucket of cold water and the instructions: “Go to the Pool.”
In an altered state of body and definitely of mind, I carefully make my way out of the cement hot box to Stravato’s tiled pool and descend into its icy waters, briefly. I’m out as soon as I’m in. I make my way to a bench and listen to the 65 year old anorexic talk of how fat is she getting (Her ribs show, she is so thin.) I listen to her story and nod. I can do no more.
When recovered from Russian Room heat and oak leaf pummeling, I realize it is 6 O’clock and I need to get home to make dinner for my son. I leave the basement bathhouse, re-enter the cot lined dressing room, and slowly put on clothes, discarding the frayed bathrobe and rubber slippers in a barrel. I make my way to 8th Street and the M8 crosstown bus. I look at all the people on that bus and wonder what their day was like. Mine definitely ended in Dream Time.
In January, 1991 I was at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California for a month work-study program. The Gulf War was raging, but we were studying peace. Along with training in Esalen massage, meditation, group dynamics, and other Human Potential explorations, we were graced with the presence of visiting scholar Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and interfaith teacher. He gave us several talks and was “on campus” for other teachings and private hang outs. .
I would join him in the lodge for lunch when I could. He was always gracious and a quiet eating companion. I loved his “Grace.” So many of us were saying long prayers as grace…thanking the plants and the animals for the giveaway of their lives that we might eat/live. And then we would start to include the farmers, the truck drivers who brought the produce, the people who made the tires for the trucks, etc.
Not Brother David. His Grace was “Thank you for the food.” Said it all! I adopted that. If it was good enough for a Benedictine monk and Buddhist teacher, it was good enough for me.
When he came to talk to our group, describing his journey from living under Nazi rule in Austria to his present reputation as a “Benedictine-Buddhist” teacher, he spoke of his core teaching, Gratefulness. His book, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, had been publish some years before. And when he spoke of Gratefulness, he said…basically: People say that when they are happy, they will be grateful. No, no….when you are grateful, you will be happy. I so clearly remember him saying that. And since that time, I have quietly put that idea into the center of my being. Not that I am always successful, but it hums along as an underpinning to my life walk. It is a very popular idea, now. I find that encouraging.
One of my best memories from that month at Esalen was when I found myself sitting with Brother David one night in one of the famous Esalen hot tubs, perched on the cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We sat in silence and listened to the night sounds under a full moon.
Grateful? Oh yes. For my life, for my teachers, for all the remarkable beings who have touched my life. So nourishing. Thank you for the food.