Michele Harper: doctor, writer, and yes, yogi

My friend Marjie invited me to her online book club for The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir. Michele Harper, the author, would be there. As soon as I read this passage in the introduction, I knew that Marjie and the author knew each other from yoga.

“As an emergency medicine physician, I know how to be still for others. I know how to call down the gods of repose and silence, to take the measure of their power in the moments when I need it most. This stillness I inhabit as I pause, push, breathe, and grow.”

What I didn’t know until I kept reading was that yoga was an integral part of Harper’s life, and so her memoir.

The Beauty in Breaking interweaves the personal–her growing up with a violent father, her divorce and relationship, finding and pursuing her calling as an emergency medicine physician,– but also professional–issues of racism and sexism in the medical profession and how these affect not just her, but her patients.

After Harper graduates from her residency, divorces and moves to Philadelphia, she discovers yoga as a way to heal.

“There is a saying that every new yogi finds her way to the mat in order to heal an injury. Sometimes the injury is sports-related, though most times it’s psychic–perhaps it’s a divorce, addiction, or sexual trauma that takes her out of her body as a way to cope when the trauma is too much to bear.”

It was delightful talking to Harper during the book club. She said that early on, her editor suggested that maybe she didn’t need all the yoga stuff. (I can’t imagine her writing this book without having spent time on the mat.) Eventually, it became apparent to him how significant yoga was to her perspective on life and work. Yoga is how Harper moves through the world with stillness and a sense of connectivity the allows her to be the smart and intuitive doctor she is and the insightful, beautiful writer she is.

In one chapter, she describes police bringing a young Black man into the E.R. for an examination, because they believe he has hidden drugs in his body. The resident she is supervising tells the man he must comply. It is Harper who questions the man, and discerns that he is not an medical emergency. He is completely capable of saying if he wants to be examined or not. He does not. By law, they can not force an examination on a competent adult. The resident calls the hospital administration to tell on her basically and is informed that Harper is right– to examine him would be breaking the law. Her presence makes a difference. Harper gives pause to the questions: who has control over their own bodies? Who gets to say what happens to them? Brown bodies. Black bodies. Don’t seem to have the same rights.

In another chapter, Harper is about to finish her shift, but she takes the time to examine a patient who is slated to go into the emergency psychiatric ward of the VA hospital. The patient is a Black military woman, who is struggling with PTSD. All Harper has to do is a quick physical exam to ensure that there are no issues there. Instead, she stops and takes a moment to ask her patient what happened. And for the first time, the patient tells her everything. Things she hasn’t even told her therapist. It’a beautiful moment of connection.

“I write about these moments so we always remember the power of our actions, so we always remember that beneath the most superficial layer of our skin, we are all the same. In that sameness is our common entitlement to respect, our human entitlement to love.”

How did Harper manage to write a memoir while being a full-time emergency medicine doctor? All she did was work, write, and yoga, she said. After completing a shift at the hospital, she would feel depleted, but after writing she would feel restored.

Sounds like Mindful Writing to me!

“Medicine, like yoga, like the entirety of this existence on earth, is a daily practice. It is the opportunity, should we choose it, to heal the human body and spirit.”

RuPaul: my new Zen guru

RuPaul. Uncredited photo.

I tell my writing students that our teachers are always available 24/7 waiting on our bookshelves or a click away on the internet. We only have to read, to listen. If we’re lucky someone will place the book we need for instruction into our hands at just the right moment.

As they say: when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

But writers aren’t our only teachers. The world is our collaborator, and sometimes we can be surprised from where inspiration comes.

My friend, children’s author and illustrator Matt Phalen, couldn’t stop talking about Master Class (video lessons taught by experts in their fields) the last time I saw him. He plays the lessons as he draws, and not just the ones on writing and film, but others on food, music, or science.

I was convinced and signed up for a year-long subscription. I chose to start with “RuPaul Teaches Self-Expression and Authenticity,” because I wanted something I could listen to without feeling the need to take notes. (I’m a compulsive note taker.)

As I listened to the first lesson, “Finding Your Frequency,” I was surprised to hear him talk about stillness and meditation!

There’s a frequency that is unique to you, and your job is to locate it. You locate it through stillness.

RuPaul talking about mindfulness? Yes. He talks about how there’s so much noise! As my blog is called Writing Through the Noise, he had my attention. Meditation is as simple as “being still and listening to your body.” “You want to create space in your conscious for your frequency to shine through.” When that frequency comes through, not only will you have a sense of your true self, but once you embrace it, your people, your tribe will find you.

In “Cultural Lighthouses to the Soul,” RuPaul describes himself as always being a seeker, and pop stars were who he looked to. “Pop stars represent your secret self.” He was drawn to rule breakers like David Bowie and Diana Ross, and (now for something completely different) Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

At one point early in his career, he thought that he couldn’t make it to the big time doing drag. When a friend encouraged him to return to drag, he wondered where he’d heard that he couldn’t do it. He realized that he was the one telling himself that. He was the producer of that limiting thought. As he says,

The calls were coming from inside the house.

Once he changed his mind about that limiting thought, everything changed.

RuPaul talks about his childhood, his struggles as a gay black man, his self-esteem, his tribe, his strength and creativity and so much more in these lessons. As I listened to one lesson after the other, I thought, everyone should listen to RuPaul. He’s a daily devotional, a Sunday sermon. There is so much love and acceptance and wisdom in his words. (And yes, he does talk about makeup and wigs and dressing in the right shape for your body.)

I’ve been meditating for years now and these aren’t unfamiliar concepts, but I can always use reminding, particularly from a new perspective. Thanks to my new Zen guru I remember that my teachers, whether they be mindfulness or writing or life experts, can come from unexpected places. RuPaul taught me about finding my own voice in the stillness and how to recognize when I’m the one standing in my own creative path.

When it comes to teachers, I only need to stay open to the possibilities.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What surprising teachers have you had? Have you ever realized you weren’t pursuing a dream, because of self-generated limiting thoughts?

Writing Exercise: What’s in the Road Ahead?

Richard Bausch’s Cake

Years ago, at the 2011 AWP (Association for Writers & Writing Programs) conference in Washington, D.C., I attended a panel session with Richard Bausch, C. Michael Curtis, Elizabeth Cox, Jill McCorkle and Michael Croley called “Jets vs. Sharks?” The subject matter was whether it was good to learn the “craft” of writing in writing programs. Bausch proved to be one of those writers with an impeccable memory, quotes from authors throughout the ages bubbled up from him. He also proved a great story teller.

My memory is not as good as his (I wish I could find my notes), but this is how I remember what happened. Bausch was telling the audience about a writing exercise he’d given his students. The prompt was “write about a cake in the middle of the road.” Curtis started laughing. At the time, he was the fiction editor at The Atlantic. “So, that’s why I’ve been getting all these submissions with cakes in the middle of the road!” The room erupted.

A cake in the middle of the road. It’s a great image. As author Amy Hempel would say, that’s a story. An image can be a story.

What’s in the Road Ahead?

What’s on the road? A head?

My sister Sarah told me a story with a similar great image, which reminded me of Bausch’s assignment and inspired the perfect pandemic prompt. While driving through her neighborhood, she came upon paper shopping bag in the middle of the street. It was upright, undisturbed, as if it was carefully placed there. The bag was full of groceries. A lot of people are getting their food delivered rather than facing the supermarket aisles with their directional arrows and masked shoppers on a quest for flour and toilet paper. Because the name and address of the groceries’ owner were on the bag and because my sister is kind, she delivered the bag to a grateful man.

Writing prompt: Bag in the Middle of the Road

Write about a brown paper shopping bag sitting upright in the middle of the road. Begin with the image. What’s in it? Do you know who’s bag it is? What do you do?

Let me know what you discovered in the comments below!

Filling in the Blanks, Sitting with Racism

In the early 1990s I worked for a management consulting firm owned and operated by an African-American man. We taught Diversity Training in Corporate America. For the most part, he was the only Black person in the room. Often, I was the only woman, the only white woman. Our clientele was not diversified, hence the training. 

At the beginning of class I would distribute an icebreaker handout, asking participants to write their names at the top. They were to complete the one-page worksheet with about twenty fill-in-the-blank statements as quickly as possible with the first thing that popped into their heads. Some of the sentences were:

All Southerners are ______________________________ .

All bad drivers are _______________________________.

All hairdressers are _______________________________.

All lazy people are _______________________________. 

The majority would scribble down their answers, others didn’t fill them out, but there was usually one man who would protest. “What is this?! I’m not filling this out!” Once a man threw the paper at my boss and me, and for a moment I thought he might flip the table, but he just stomped out of the conference room. It made you wonder what kind of things popped into his head. 

Diversity training handout

And that was precisely the point of the exercise. 

That man was not alone in hearing ugly words and ideas leap into his consciousness and that was why we never asked participants to share what words came to mind. All of us were fed stereotypes, bigotry, misogyny, and racism from the moment we were born. We might not have been aware of them, but they were there, and they were influencing how we interacted with people, especially those who were different than us.

This still holds true in the 21st century. We are not a post-racism nation. Today, Americans in all 50 states are marching for Black Lives Matter. To move forward, white Americans need to face racism not only in our country, but in our own minds. Closing our eyes, saying we don’t see color, isn’t helpful. Saying we are not racist, because we don’t use the n-word, or we voted for Obama is not enough.

While that Diversity exercise showed me how our minds fill in the blanks, it was mindfulness that taught me how to see and to be with my mind’s activity – good and bad. How to recognize these thoughts when they arise (not just when prompted in a training class) and how to sit with them, investigate where they come from, and understand how they affect the way I move through the world.

In my Mindful Writing classes, I remind students that we are not human beings on a spiritual journey, but spirits having a human experience. Now, we, in particular white Americans, must see that Blacks in America are having a different human experience. 

It is incredibly uncomfortable to recognize our privilege and own our role in systemic racism, but as practitioners of mindfulness we are trained to sit with our discomfort, to acknowledge how our brains automatically fill in the blanks, and to see the truth, treating ourselves with compassion and patience. We need to recognize that our silence, our unwillingness to break those thought patterns, is costing Black lives. Once we do this difficult inner work, we can begin to have these difficult conversations with others, treating them with compassion and patience. Through our mindfulness practices, we have the tools we need to be actively engaged anti-racists.

Writing Exercise: Addressing your dreams

There is this idea that people don’t want to hear about your dreams. Whenever I have an interesting dream, I call my friend Susan, who is not only happy to listen, but is great at interpreting. She’s an amateur Jungian and will remind me that everyone in my dream is me. Fascinating.

Tell me your dream

Recently, I called her about a dream I had in which my daughter and I got into a Lyft and left my parents’ house. (No one was home.) After a few minutes of driving around, we passed their house again. I told the driver to stop, I was angry. When I said, “Why didn’t you take us where we needed to go?” He just laughed and shook his head. Back at the house, my parents’ front door was unhinged, lying across the threshold, half in, half out of the house. The railings and a short wrought iron fence were disassembled and spread across the lawn and walkway. My daughter reminded me of the cats (!) and we wrangled a couple of cats and three kittens nestled together under a bush, back into the house. Then we set about finding screws for the door, railings, and gate.

Talk to your dream

Susan wasn’t certain how to interpret this one and recommended I ask the driver why he was laughing, since he was the one I was angry with in the dream. So, I put pen to paper and wrote his response. He said, “I laughed, because I had brought you were you needed to go. The house was coming apart when you left. You didn’t notice. You didn’t want to notice.”

He went into more detail, but I fear I may be boring you. (Perhaps I should keep my dreams to myself and Susan.) But I think this is a great writing exercise.

Whether you are addressing a character in a dream or a character in you WIP, this can bring up some insightful motives. It can let you see things you’re not seeing and understand that which you ignore.

Writing Prompt

Meditate for a few moments, placing yourself in the scene. Imagine the person’s face as you ask them the question you want answered. Write down what they tell you. Don’t stop to interpret. Just listen and take notes.