You can owe me into the next life

I have been thinking a lot about my tai chi teacher, Maggie Newman, these days. She and I have aged decades since my first class with her in 1997, and yet how permanent and fluid her influence remains. I can’t recall which year it was that Maggie stopped teaching, but she was already into her nineties and active, though her mind was lessening bit by bit.

It is hard to lose a teacher as generous and profound as Maggie. She raised her rates by one dollar during the twenty-some years that I studied the form with her: her rate going from ten dollars per class to eleven.

So, of course, Maggie in her later years, throughout her life, really, never had much money but you would never have guessed that. She seemed to be sustained by something else, something rarely encountered. Call it some kind of spiritual/physical grace, though those words don’t do it justice. She lived beyond the regular kinds of sustenance, not that she didn’t get a kick out of things, even kooky Christmas gadgets from Chinatown.

Maggie Newman, flanked by John Couturier and me at my poetry group’s book party, 2008

When I was laid off from my job at Scholastic, and I told her I wasn’t worried, she replied, “I am.”

Shortly after, I ran into her in my neighborhood. She had bought a pair of New Balance sneakers. As we rode the Second Avenue bus downtown together, she said, “You know you can owe me into the next life,” her way of saying, if I couldn’t afford that eleven dollars per class, that would be okay with her.

Her natural generosity required no acknowledgement; it was just a matter-of-fact kindness freely given. That’s the kind of person Maggie is and was.

“Remember me for loving you,” she sang to us in the early morning hours at tai chi camp at Keuka College in the Finger Lakes.

“Remember me for loving you.”

Maggie, I do.

Missing the Cabin

When I am in the city too long and the spring never really comes and May feels and looks like November, I start dreaming about the fields, meadows, mountains, and notches between the mountains in the Northern Catskills.

I miss the mountain air, the smell of the dirt, and peeking under last year’s leaves to see which of my perennials may have made it through winter.

We rent, don’t own, our cabin in the Catskills, and work is being done on the land around the house. The steady rain has made the work harder to do and more destructive of the land. John and I probably won’t get to see what the place looks like for another three weeks.

Meanwhile, in midtown Manhattan, our small apartment on the second floor is dark, and I am waiting for a reprieve–from the dark, from the damp cold, from the confinement in 560 square feet.

I’ve been cooped up for too long. I need to look out without thought on a far-reaching expanse. I need to wake up in a quieter place where the birds congregate and sing. I need to go to bed after hearing the spring peepers perform their sweet-eerie calls.

Patience. Patience. Joan. When will you ever learn.

The Spirit of My Mother on Voting Day

I just voted in Manhattan at the 73rd District, the same place that our current “ruler” votes, or did vote before he was president. Like many of my older friends who have lost parents in recent years, I often express relief that my mother died during the oh-so-sane (or seemingly so, in retrospect) Obama years. My mother, the ultimate liberal, who listened to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now every morning, would have been apoplectic about the state of the United States under the current administration.

My mother died just two months shy of her 101st birthday. The Happy Birthday card she received from the Obama Family on September 20, 2013, still sits on a bookshelf in her apartment gathering dust. Because I never notified the post office of her death, we still receive her absentee ballots in the mail. I must admit that I have occasionally entertained the idea of casting votes for her in perpetuity, but I am much too law abiding a person to do any such thing. I tear the ballots up and recycle them.

Both of my parents were politically active during my life with them. They always voted, so, naturally, as soon as I could vote, I did as well. We all took voting–and all that led up to an election–very seriously. My very first inkling of the intensity of emotion an election could evoke, occurred when I was pretty young, probably around five, when I found my teenage sister sobbing in front of the television because Adlai Stevenson had been defeated by Ike in the presidential election. More clear in my mind is the lead up to the 1960 presidential election. My extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins) drew up dining room chairs and crowded the small sofa at my grandparents Long Island home to watch the Kennedy-Nixon debates. My grandparents may have watched the schmaltzy Lawrence Welk Show each week but they took politics seriously and were democrats through and through.

During the sixties, my parents and I allied ourselves with candidates who supported civil rights and opposed the War in Vietnam. I supported Eugene McCarthy over Robert Kennedy and was crestfallen when Hubert Humphrey won the nomination. However, when Nixon beat Humphrey and became president in 1968, I found out that it did matter who you voted for even when the choice was not ideal. There is always a better choice and that choice–however slight the difference–makes a difference. Yes, Humphrey was more of a hawk than I wished for; no, he had not stood against the War the way McCarthy had, but he was clearly a more decent and rational individual than Tricky Dick.

In my mother’s final year, she often despaired. She wanted the world to right itself during her lifetime. “I guess I’m never going to see the world a better place before I die,” she said to me. She left the world worrying about the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, the torture of prisoners all over the globe, and climate change. What would she have made of babies torn from their mothers at the border? of children kept in cages? of Nazi chants in Charlottesville?

As I walk in to the public school and board the elevator with an elderly woman and a young one, I feel my mother’s presence urging me on: to have faith in this electoral process despite the daily horrors Donald J. Trump has inflicted on the American people for the last two years. A strange pride takes hold of me as I take hold of my two-page paper ballot. How many times I have voted before, but this time it feels different. It’s as if I am voting for the electoral process itself. Democracy is what’s at stake as I gather my courage to hope that a very blue and cleansing wave (blue-indigo-violet and large) is coming.

I Voted






Smitten: Why I Do Tai Chi

Maggie Newman 

for Maggie Newman, Tom Daly, Lorraine Reinstein, and All My Tai Chi Friends

Last week, during the final minutes of Tai Chi class, my teacher Tom Daly, asked us a simple, hard-to-answer question: “Why do you do Tai Chi? What is the main reason?”

We all looked at Tom a bit stunned and confused. Put on the spot, we brought up some of the more normal and obvious (and what I think of as dowdy) reasons at first: balance, health, and wellbeing. Then one longtime practitioner spoke of the wholeness Tai Chi had brought into his life.

I (the writer-editor) was, as usual, at a loss for words. How could I describe how I came to Tai Chi, and why was I still doing the form (and trying to get better at it) after 20 going on 21 years?

People who lack an interest in Tai Chi often ask me why I do this—to their eyes—strange-looking martial art. They often assume that I do it for self-serving reasons: to improve my health and sense of spiritual wellbeing. When I tell them the real reason, they are even more dumbfounded.

I was bewitched by the beauty of it.

When I was a student in NYU’s graduate creative writing program, I tried to stay in shape by running around the university’s outdoor track. My knees weren’t very good, so this wasn’t a very successful form of exercise. One day, inside the track’s oval, I saw a group of students doing Tai Chi. They looked like big exotic birds doing some instinctual dance. I decided that this must be a type of Tai Chi I had heard of called Soaring Crane.

My eyes were drawn to one student in particular whose movements were more graceful than the others’. When still, he was neither handsome nor fit, but when he did the form, whatever it was, he became beautiful—the way a dog’s or horse’s integrated movements are beautiful.

I wanted to be able to do whatever it was he was doing, to feel it in my body, my entire being. This was the initial allure, but the seduction was complete when I found just the right Tai Chi teacher.

By chance, my friend, poet Katrinka Moore, had been studying with Maggie Newman for some time. When I voiced interest in learning Tai Chi, she recommended that I try Maggie’s beginning class. It was being offered in a small studio in Greenwich Village on Lafayette Street. Maggie had her long white hair up in a bun. She was small and moved with great precision and gentle authority. From the beginning, I loved to watch her move. She was poetry in motion, the embodiment of grace and wisdom.

A former dancer in Paul Taylor’s company, Maggie had taken up the form in her forties—at a difficult time in her life. She had been romantically involved with Taylor, and from the rumors I’ve heard, he treated her badly. I imagine that when she broke with that dance world, she must have been bereft. At first, until she began to study the Yang form of Tai Chi with Professor Cheng Man-ching.

What I failed to realize when I started classes with Maggie was that she was famous in Tai Chi circles. She was one of Cheng’s (“The Professor’s”) “Big Six”: senior students in the United States whom he had chosen to carry on his particular Tai Chi lineage.

I hung on Maggie’s every word and movement as she slowly, very slowly taught us the 37 postures of what I later learned was the short form of Tai Chi. Very ignorant, I thought I was learning the long form because Maggie took more than two years to teach us this form.

During our one-hour classes, I also watched the senior students carefully, trying to mimic the way they moved. Their slightest movements and transitions between movements were so subtle and smooth: How did they do it? When I asked one woman, she said, “You’ll get it eventually. It takes time.” So I had to be content with Theodore Roethke’s advice in “The Waking”: “I learn by going where I have to go.”

It would be many years before I could do the form with any skill. At times I was embarrassed by my clumsiness and poor balance. Then—surprise—I would find myself doing one tiny movement a little better.

Again, every time I thought I had learned something elusive, I realized how little I really understood.

Maggie said at one of the first classes, “One thing you’re going to learn is patience.”

I had thought my study of dance as a child and young adult would give me a leg up with the fine points of Tai Chi, but it didn’t offer any shortcuts. The form was not exercise, not dance, not aerobic, though it got me breathing. It is a discipline, a practice, an art form, in which you become the art.

If you let it, the form will inhabit you: your body, your brain, your soul. And it will seldom disappoint—it stays with you and nourishes you in infinite and basic ways.

When I am down or scared or desperate, Tai Chi grounds me. I remember to be thankful for my two feet, rooting me to the earth. I am glad for the luxury of movement.

Following Maggie’s words, I try “to ride the air,” “to set something in motion and follow it.”

And though the form does feel “delicious,” as Maggie would often say, I learned that Tai Chi is not just about Tai Chi. It’s about how you exist with yourself and with others.

Maggie always wanted each of us to be in tune with the rest of the group, to keep the same timing, to move in sync with others. I love doing the form with the group. The others reassure me. Many of the more advanced students can do certain postures better than I can. They have better balance. Their shoulders are relaxed, their legs stronger, and they have more flexible knees. I am inspired to be (and sometimes am) less flawed.

I love that Tai Chi is always new and always familiar. It is like moving to the music of the spheres.

2014-05-18 16.18.07-2
Maggie Newman at her 90th birthday party, with the writer and Tai Chi teacher Ed Young behind her (Photo by Joan Lauri Poole, 2014)

Some Days I Just Gaze and Take Occasional Photographs

Yesterday I just wanted to look around and take photographs of certain moments as they passed me by: Oliver making very distinct shadows on the pavement during our night walk, a daffodil or two springing up into the sun, small groupings of tulips in pink, purple, and red outside St. Bart’s Church.

Some days images are more important to me than words. Letting whatever is there come into my sight is enough. The visible world that my eyes open on every day unfolds, and I simply let it.

There is idolatry in looking, worship in gazing; and there is sexuality in it as well, just as there is always some sexual desire when a person gazes at or tries to make a painting or sculpture to body forth the bodies around us.

I like to look
to the animals
to the trees
to the bursting out flowers
and the newly budding leaves.

When I just want to observe plant, animal, and mineral life around me, I often think of one of my favorite thinkers, the psychologist and writer James Hillman. I think of an essay he wrote in 1982, “The Animal Kingdom in the Human Dream,” which has had an enormous effect on my view of the natural world (as if there is any other).

Animals figured large in Hillman’s body of thought, and the lecture drew on the many animal dreams Hillman had collected over the years, some from patients. He continued to collect such dreams until the end of his life in 2011. In the essay, Hillman warned against interpreting the animals in dreams as symbols and suggested that we “read the animal. . . . the dream animal can be amplified as much by a visit to the zoo as by a symbol dictionary.” In other words, if a snake comes to you in a dream, don’t think phallic symbol or evil. Go out and observe snakes. Read everything you can about them. Instead of reducing the dream animal, Hillman suggests that we reduce “our own vision, to that of the animal–a reduction that may be an extension, an amplification, of our vision so as to see the animal with an animal eye.” (Hillman, Animal Presences, p.438)

Ultimately, Hillman goes even further, and I love where he goes. Hillman equates the animal in all its physical presence with artistic creation itself: “the animal eye is an aesthetic eye, and . . . the animal is compelled by an aesthetic necessity to present itself as an image.” (Hillman, p. 765).  He says that when animals display themselves through their colors and songs, gaits and flights, they are the original, primordial works of art.

I love this equation and think that it could apply to other living beings, such as trees and flowers, as well.



My Mother, a Stranger, and a Tree

Today is Easter, and many memories are in the air I breathe. One wafts over me: I am attending an Easter Parade with my mother. It is the late fifties. I am seven or eight and wearing a light-weight lavender spring coat (who has one any more?) and a white bonnet with frothy purple flowers above the brim. My mother’s attire has escaped my memory, but I know she has on something equally dressy and very unlike what she or I will be wearing come the sixties, seventies, and decades beyond.

It is too windy and cold to be wearing these scanty items but it is a girl-woman thing, and we feel the need to dress this way for the occasion. I  hold on to my delightful hat to keep it from blowing away. When this memory itself blows away, I long not for that particular time and place but to have my mother by my side again.

And, in a sense, she does become a presence today as I stroll with Oliver down to the United Nations and Dag Hammarskjold plazas. When I first moved into the Turtle Bay section of Manhattan, in 1976, my mother often took the Broadway bus, the 104, down to meet me here for an brisk, inexpensive lunch at the small coffee shop on the lower level of the main building. Then we would check out the not-very-pricey jewelry in the the gift shop. I still have some fragile, dangling garnet earrings my mother purchased for me there. Afterwards, we’d walk out together, and if it was spring, stroll up and down the pathways between rows and rows of cherry blossom trees.

My mother was a lover of trees and these were among her favorites. Later she would do Chinese brush paintings of them under the tutelage of an artist from Shanghai, Lydia Chang. She told me the trees were like fresh laundry on a line. We relished that freshness together.

Those trees were on my mind as Oliver and I walked down 47th Street toward home. Because of a crazy man on a skate board who yelled at Ollie, “I’m going to get your ball,” we stepped into the hidden garden kept by Holy Family Church, which neighbors The Japan Society. I was a bit scared that the man yelling at us would follow us in and actually try to grab my dog’s well-worn tennis ball out of his mouth, but we were safe in this sanctuary.

Oliver likes the secretiveness of the place and the small goldfish pond there. I, too, like to watch the fish swish about, and I also like the sweet sculpture of a young Mary, looking a bit ecstatic, toward the back of the garden.

When we turned back toward the garden’s gate, I saw a tree I’d never seen (or noticed) before, budding and flowering all over with coral-pink buds and fully open blossoms. What kind of tree was it? Should I google it on my PlantSnap app? No, that would alter the mood, and anyway, the answer was immediately forthcoming.

img_3649A woman I figured to be about ten years older than I came into the small garden and stood nearby. She held an iPad awkwardly in her hands and was intent on photographing the tree. “Is it some sort of rose,” I asked her, knowing my ignorance. “No, No,” she said, “It’s a camellia.”

She needed to talk and  proceeded to explain that she had been waiting for the buds to open fully, and that this year, because of the cold, they were late. We began to talk about the City’s hidden gardens and about the splendors of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

I was a little surprised when she blurted out, “That stupid UN.” Then something about how that stupid place had eliminated those marvelous cherry blossom trees.

img_3648This talkative stranger with a heavy Asian accent that was at times hard to follow, did ease my mind, however, when she told me that the trees hadn’t been thrown out. Someone had taken them and replanted them in another garden.


Still Life

“White Roses in a Vase” Frans Mortelmans (Belgian, 1865-1936)

The loss of my aunt, who was the oldest member of my family left (leaving me next in line), plus the general political uncertainty and violence of this past year have increased my need for still life paintings and photographs.

I am drawn to all types of still life painting except those in which recently killed fowl, rabbits, and other small creatures are shown, lying lifeless on a table or hung from a hook, about to be cooked and devoured.  Am I, then, a hypocritical lover of nature morte, which Wikipedia defines as “art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects which are either natural or man-made”? Why would the act of stilling life be so appealing, when the final stillness for us, the only stillness we humans will ever know (though we don’t really know if we’ll know it when it comes) is death?

I came across the still life above when an art lover I had recently friended on Facebook posted it about a month ago. Immediately, the fresco-like quality of the painting, and the unusual quality of the light caught by the roses, thorns, stems, and leaves, infused me with a deep upswell of feeling followed by relaxation. It was as if I had taken a tense breath in and then exhaled very deeply until I was relaxed.

The truth is that there is something about the pale, barely yellow roses, the crinkly leaves, and the vase with browning water that is not at all realistic. Or better yet, there is something artifactual about the image the Belgian painter Frans Mortelsman created here–a mysterious artifact found and preserved. I looked for more examples of this painter’s works, and found many many paintings of flowers, but none possessed the extraordinary millenials old feeling of  light captured here. I wonder whether this still life was an unusual painting for Mortelsman. Was he trying to make this particular painting look itself like something very old, as the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder often does? Whatever his intent, this painting has become part of my museum of beloved pictures.

Longing for Spring

Black Dog at Cabin Window. Oil on Canvas.

The first thing I looked for this morning was the 6 to 8 inches of snow that wasn’t there. I was almost disappointed that the storm hadn’t materialized, though I would have had to coax Oliver’s paws into those silly cerulean rubber booties, which is a pain. Is this nor’easter going to be the last threat of big snow? Is warm sun around the bend? How are the hundred or so tulip, jonquil, yarrow, and iris bulbs I planted last October doing in the frozen earth up in the Northern Catskills? I hope no critters ate them as treats.

Slush, rain pattering—
We walk out, cerulean
booties on dog feet

The painting above is courtesy of my favorite artist, Pierre Bonnard.

Blue Day


Bather. 1935. Oil on Canvas. Private Collection.

Oliver’s been extra antsy today. He can’t get enough play, treats, socks, or balls. And he won’t leave me alone when I try to be quiet and read or write or just scribble and ponder.

The weather’s dark, rainy, and indistinct. I waited until the late afternoon to go out, and I didn’t stay in the open air long, even though it’s warm (50ish degrees) and soft on the skin. The rain was almost gone by the time I emerged with Oliver on the street.

The lack of light and contrast between light and dark gets to me. I become blue and unsure of myself and my path. I worked on a haiku about a homeless man, which didn’t make me feel any better.

On a day like today, the best thing for me would be to go look at paintings by a great colorist like Bonnard, whose settings and colors and women and dogs make me endlessly hungry for more life and more color.

I loved Bonnard before I had a dog. This is probably why I never noticed the dogs in his paintings or knew that he had done quite a few paintings of dogs, including poodles and greyhounds. Once I got Oliver, all images of dogs intrigued me, so I was particularly happy that Bonnard had rendered them in his own unique way with his paint brush.

Here are just a few of the Bonnard paintings I love. They cheer me up for some reason. If you’re feeling blue too, I hope they make you feel better.

Two Poodles. 1891. Oil on Canvas. Southhampton City Art Gallery.

The Red-Checkered Tablecloth. 1910. Oil on Canvas. Private Collection.

Discrimination: What I Learned from My Dog


When I first got Oliver, he was eleven weeks old and weighed about four pounds. I didn’t know a good vet, so I went online and searched areas nearby.  After looking at various sites and reading the dog owners’  reviews, I chose Dr. Peter Kross, whose practice was not far from Turtle Bay, where I live. Nervously and ineptly, I packed up the puppy in some sort of square bag contraption with straps (think of the boxes women used to wear in cigar, cigarette, tiparillo ads) so that I could take him home on the bus. I walked down past the United Nations, past many guards, on First Avenue to the Rivergate Veterinary Clinic.

Dr. Kross’s clinic is in a tiny space on 37th Street, close to the Bideawee Animal Shelter and the FDR Drive. I had never been a part of the dog/cat lover world before, and everything about the experience was new to me. Dr. Kross was easygoing. He had a sly sense of humor and an appealing, breezy physical presence. “Did you get Oliver because you wanted a guard dog,” he asked me. I thought he was joking, and maybe he was. I said, “No, of course not.” (The puppy was so tiny and vulnerable at that time.) However, Oliver, possessing a hyper-alert temperament and a very loud, tenor bark, did actually develop into an excellent guard dog.

Right away, I was struck by the affection Dr. Kross displayed with Oliver. He told Oliver how beautiful he was, and he hugged and I think kissed him. How different the dog-vet visit was from my own or my 97-year-old mother’s visits to the doctor: no encouraging compliments or gestures of kindly affection for us.

Most important, Dr. Kross advised me to develop several habits with Oliver right away:

  1. Get him used to you touching his feet and mouth.
  2. Start brushing his teeth, and do it regularly.
  3. Make sure he gets at least two hours of exercise/walks, even if you have to play with him in the hallway of your apartment building: A tired dog is a good dog!
  4. Expose him to people of all races, types, and ages, including people who wear uniforms or appear different in some way.

As I took the bus home with Oliver squirming in that awkward square carrier, I thought about what the vet had said. And I tried to follow all of it, though I wasn’t so regular about brushing the puppy’s teeth in the beginning, and I still fall off from time to time.

Of all the items Dr. Kross mentioned, Number 4 has been the most critical, and it has been on my mind a lot this past week. Most likely, I am mulling over “expose him to people of all races,” because of what has been happening in the past year in this country.

Let’s go back to me and my young dog. It was easy to expose my new puppy to people of color because my mother was still living on 123rd Street and Broadway, my childhood hood. Eight years back, the neighborhood was the Edge of Harlem to me, even though some businesses were beginning to refer to the area as SoHa (short for South Harlem). Gentrification and Columbia University’s expansion were still in their infancy. Now the neighborhood is changing so fast, I can’t keep up with all the new restaurants that have opened and the luxury hi-rises going up.

I didn’t want my dog to dislike anybody because of race or outfit, so I made sure Oliver met people of different ages, colors, and professions. I walked up to guards, police, mail men and women. I let young children touch him (with much cautionary advice). Oliver is “black and beautiful,” and many black people would stop to admire him and his color and call him “blackie”.  (They still do, though his chin has become a bit gray.)

Dr. Kross’s advice paid off in large measure. Though I admit we had a couple of unpleasant “racist dog” incidents. One occurred in a laundromat in the country. Oliver was playing with a group of white youngsters when a Mexican family came in to do their wash. Suddenly, he changed and started barking at the Hispanic children, and I believe it was because they weren’t white or familiar. I apologized to the family for my dog’s behavior but the incident unnerved and saddened me. Another failure of mine involved people with physical challenges. I didn’t anticipate early enough that people in electronic wheelchairs or scooters would be foreign and, hence, frightening to my dog. I have not been able to change Oliver’s behavior on this score. Whenever he encounters a person in such a device, he feels threatened and barks at the person. At least he is not afraid of the many elders who use walkers.  My mother, whom he knew from the beginning (and until her death), regularly used one.

When I think about how I tried to raise my dog, I see parallels to how my parents raised me. My mother and father exposed me from the very start to all kinds of people. At age 3 and 4, three of my closest friends were Adina, Leo, and Eva. Adina was black, and Leo and Eva were Chinese-American siblings. We played together often. Because my parents exposed me in a natural way to racial differences, I knew nothing about racism as a young child. My nursery and elementary schools were fully integrated like the neighborhood itself. I didn’t hear racist language at home or at school. It wasn’t until my friend Adina accompanied me to Long Island to visit my grandparents that a kid from the block there told me an off-color joke with the n-word in it. I didn’t really get it, so I asked my mother what it meant. She told me that I should never use that word, and she impressed upon me how that word would cause injury, the same kind of hurt she had experienced when people had used the word wop with her. 

Words meant a lot to both of my parents, and my mother was particularly sensitive to racial and ethnic slurs. Her forebears came from Furore and Positano, Italy.  She and her mother, and some of her siblings, had dark skin and dark hair. Because of the prejudice against Italians when my mother was growing up, her family felt shame about being dark. This attuned her to racial discrimination at an early age.  My father, who was white as white can be, and freckled all over, was named Justus. Maybe he felt the way he did about equality and justice because his father was a Baptist minister and his mother, whom I never met, was by all accounts an extremely kind, generous, and open-minded person.  I’m sure my father’s love of jazz and admiration for so many black musicians and singers had an influence. I like to think that just because my parents were good people, they stood firmly against racism and discrimination of any kind and did their best to pass their principles on to me.

I have been thinking about the white problem in the United States, and about how easily it could be prevented in children if white parents made a point of including children of all backgrounds and colors in their children’s lives. What if American communities were better integrated and comprised people of many races and religions, so that exposure to all types came naturally and early on?

I do believe that being with children of all colors and religious and cultural backgrounds would enrich the children’s lives and be a lifelong inoculation against racism. White parents could help to bring this about but they’d have to want to, and, for some, that isn’t the case.