On Suffering

Fr. Richard Rohr says that “suffering is any time you are not in control.” As a parent of a toddler, following that definition would mean I am suffering 90% of the time I am with her. This week, Joel and I developed a special handshake for the days that Olive tests our mettle but does not break us. It involves a chest bump. Since he had to work late last night and I parented solo all day, I tried to do it alone once I got the tiny tornado to bed, but it just got awkward.
As you can probably tell from my last three posts, this past week has been one of our family sorting through our grief about Trayvon, the implications for our culture and country, and trying to create art around it to shift our focus from the crazy racist things people are saying on the internet to a positive expression of our longing for a different level of discourse.

In the midst of this, I had the honor to go to see Robert Moses’ Kin dance company perform several pieces at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Robert Moses has been a huge presence in Bay Area dance for the past 17 years, but I had never seen his work in the flesh until now. I sat with a group of dancers from ODC Dance Commons, where we all take classes from the imitable Dudley Flores, who was premiering with Robert Moses’ Kin for the first time. Michele (who you met in my last post) and I treated it like a Bethel AME church service, even though we were up in the balcony, shouting out “PREACH!” and similar exclamations of amazement and encouragement to the dancers below. Nobody seemed to mind our excitement, despite the very cultured atmosphere — everyone was totally rapt with the power and release of the dancers, the quick force of the choreography, and the interesting choices of music and spoken word that the dancers twisted and turned along to. It is hard to explain my relationship to my dance teacher. I’ve been taking classes from him for the past 5 years, and at this point to my friends I just call him “my muse”. He is an incredibly inspiring person, while also still being very human, allowing us to see the otherworldliness of his dancer capabilities alongside his goofy nature. I have seen him perform many times with different companies, but his body came alive with Robert Moses’ choreography, in a way I’d never seen in him before. It is strange to know a man’s body as well as I know Dudley’s, simply from hours of studying its movements to try to imitate them.

But I digress. The piece in the show that had me most in tears was not the shockingly powerful Speaking Ill of the Dead, which is about learning your loved one is not coming home from the war, but rather Biography, in which the dancers moved to excerpts from a 1961 discussion with James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Emile Capouya and Alfred Kazni. In the midst of the discussion, James Baldwin states, “To be a negro in this country and to be conscious is to be in a constant state of rage.” My heart caught in my throat, thinking of the rage and helplessness my husband has felt this month, as all of our consciousnesses have been raised to understand just how vicious the racial climate in America is right now. And I thought about the Richard Rohr quote I led with, about suffering being whenever you are not in control, and seeing how apt that idea fit here, way better than it does for parenting overall —  to be a marginalized person in this culture, to not have the power to even protect your family members, leads you to suffering and rage.

Van Vogh's Old Man in Sorrow

Another friend’s blog recently quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.” Dr. MLK Jr. takes the experience of suffering and makes it meaningful, as an actual way to gain power. He turns the victim into a powerful figure simply through his ability to love and to suffer, to hold both at the same time. As I often remind myself in moments of pain, suffering grows the soul. People try to find reasons for it to exist, but I think we only have to look to Holy Week in the Christian tradition to find some meaning for it. As we entered Holy Week on this past Palm Sunday, I stood in church (for the one second I got to stand, not chasing after my 18-month old), and meditated on how God chose suffering. Jesus chose to go out in a unimaginably painful, humiliating way. I think that can teach me something about my own suffering, my own moments of feeling marginalized and misunderstood.

My husband makes fun of me for going through a “Pop Renaissance”, as I have been choosing a lot of pop music for the twice-daily dance parties Olive and I have in our living room.  A current fave is Rihanna’s song “We Found Love”, whose chorus goes, “We found love in a hopeless place”, a message I can definitely dance joyously to.  I think this is the point of Holy Week, to find love in the suffering, in the rage, in the powerlessness.  The best way I know how to do that is through making art, so I write, my husband creates songs, and, in the words of Pina Bausch, we “dance, dance, otherwise we are lost.”

3 thoughts on “On Suffering

  1. Another beautiful piece Rhea!! I’ve been trying to remember your quote about suffering this week, and here it is, with a hopeful path that I can take as well. I’m going through serious soul growing pains, but I’m so blessed that dance not only gives me a respite, but dance gives me YOU!!!

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