Photo: Holly Sweeny
The Gift Given
- In Memory of Marjorie Barstow
Marj didn’t teach us what she did. She showed us what she did, over and over again. We experienced the results of what she did. We walked away, mysteriously transformed, hearing Marj say, “Think about that.”
That was it. No instruction. No words of advice. Sentences were rarely comprised of more than five words. We hung on to her quips.
It’s not a position. It’s a movement.
There’s nothing to get; there’s only something to lose.
You’re all trying to do something, and that something is your habit.
It’s just a little bit of nothing.
This is not complicated. It’s your habits that are complicated. This is too simple for you.
No pushy. No pully.
No especially anything.
There are three kinds of strange: good strange, bad strange, and crazy strange.
If you’re up because you’re afraid to be down, you’re not up.
At some point you have to say, I’m tired of hurting myself.
Can you leave yourself alone?
Through her hands, Marj let us know what was possible without major surgery. As if she was an eagle, she’d swoop us up and sweep us to the top of the mountain so we could observe the world from a vista, unknown.
Before we knew it, we had slide back into the foothills. What we felt was how far we had regressed. What we often failed to notice was that, each time, we regressed less. Step by step we were walking our way up that mountain. There was space, and it was vast. Our eyes were opening. The air was fresh and clean.
Marj was clear about us having to walk our own walk. She did not baby us. It was not in her nature. Those of us who, through Marj’s inspiration, turned ourselves into teachers found our individual paths up that mountain. Along the way we developed our own way of walking, had our own revelations, figured out how to best use our hands, hone our language, sharpen our seeing, refine our kinesthesia. We developed our own pedagogy. Our tradition was one of originality.
Each of us saw something in Marj that was latent within us. We saw in her our potential, what we valued, what we aspired toward, what we most needed. An educator par excellence, she educed from us that which was longing to come out. Like a skilled midwife, she led the gifted child within us out into the light of day. We had to do our own labor, but she was there to see us through.
If I were to choose three values of Marj’s that I want most to see kept alive and passed on to other Alexander teachers they would be – Delicacy, Naturalness, and Movement.
Delicacy is a tricky word. It has multiply meanings. It can mean carefully, which was not what Marj meant when she used the word delicately, which she did countless times in a day of teaching. She meant extraordinarily fine, texturally and structurally, like a spider’s web, strong, flexible, spacious, patterned, and yet delicate. She meant delicate like the scent of sweet alyssum, the faintest of pastels, the softest of breezes.
Delicacy also means something rare and delicious, something special.
Using the word delicacy was Marj’s way of bypassing the doing/non-doing conundrum. We’re after something that is not a doing and not a non-doing. It’s in between doing and non-doing. Or it’s both doing and non-doing. That’s getting closer. You see what I mean? Hmm….language.
Marj observed that often students who were working with the idea of not doing, only thinking, were not changing, not moving, not releasing into greater freedom, but subtly holding themselves still, one foot slightly on the break, afraid of forcing it.
With these students you’d hear Marj say something like, “Move. Why don’t you move? Don’t be afraid to move. No movement, no change.”
Then the next person she’d work with would be a person who was moving with too much force, and you’d hear Marj say something like, “Ehhh, wait a minute. You’re pushing from here, pointing the tip of her index finger on the center of the person’s sternum. No pushy. Ehhh, wait a minute. Now, you’re pulling from here, lightly touch the sides of the person’s neck. No pully. Can’t you just ever so delicately follow my hands this way?”
Marj would say what she had to say to coax a person into the realm of delicacy. Delicacy was more important than direction for Marj, perhaps more important than anything. Nothing real could happen without it. No matter what you did, if you did it within the realm of delicacy, well, that was a beginning.
When I teach I rarely use the word delicately unless I am role-playing Marj, which I love to do. It always gets students smiling. I use phrases like “ever so softly can you”, or “without any effort see what happens if you…I talk about deep softness, powerful softness, softer than softness. The meaning and feeling behind words change from generation to generation. I use words that work for my students, now.
Marj’s delicacy was like the feel of air, like space itself. Deep softness feels like water. You can put your hand right through it, there is substance to it, but a substance yielding and fluid. Water can take the form of a droplet hanging from the tip of a leaf, and it can take the form of a one hundred foot wave rising over an entire village. Both are soft. Both are fluid and moving. Power and delicacy are not mutually exclusive.
The realm of delicacy, that’s where our work lives. And only there.
Naturalness is the absence of artificiality. You can’t be natural, just as you can’t be confident. Confidence is the absence of fear. You can’t make yourself relax. But you can learn to release unnecessary tension. You can’t be yourself, but you can be less of what you are not. Absence. Presence through absence. You can’t be present. Presence is the quieting, the falling away of distraction and contraction.
So to understand naturalness, we have to understand artificiality. In the Alexander world artificiality has a certain look to it. When I was at the 3rd International Congress for The Alexander Technique in Engelberg, I overheard a conversation. “Do you know anything about the group that’s here?” “Not really, but it looks like they are here because there’s something wrong with their necks.” A good actor once said to me, “I can spot an Alexander teacher from a mile away. And then when I see them sit down, it’s a dead giveaway.”
Marj’s pedagogy was partly predicated on eradicating artificiality within Alexander’s work. She succeeded to some degree, but not entirely. We are almost programmed to hold on to what we like. So when we experience freedom and naturalness, immediately, we try to hold onto it. And it is this holding onto it that builds artificiality. When Alexander saw a person holding on to the newfound freedom they didn’t want to lose, sometimes he’d go over to them, put his hands on their shoulders and jiggle them about, telling them to give it up, to let it go. When Marj saw us all trying to hard, she’d say, “Why don’t you all just have a good slump?”
How can we hold a moonbeam in our hands? We can’t.
Marj perceived this look of artificiality in many Alexander teachers when they were working through Alexander’s procedures. I think she loved those procedures. She taught through them for many, many years. And then one day, she didn’t.
In the late 1960’s, Marj had been invited to Southern Methodist University to teach in their Performing Arts Department. She packed her big blue suitcase, put it in the trunk of her old Plymouth, and drove down to Texas. When she got there, the director of the program told her there were about 50 or so students who wanted to work with her. Clearly, it was going to be impossible for her to give individual lessons. She was forced to work with all these kids in a group. When she got in front of this wild horde of hippies, Marj knew that having them all watch her get someone in and out of a chair was not going to work. So she said, what do all of you like to do? These freewheelers were into juggling and circus arts, into acting, dancing, stage combat, playing music. Marj thought it would be a lot more engaging for them if they watched each other doing what they did. After all, they were performers. And so it began.
What Marj saw was that these kids were getting free and more organized within what they were doing, and it was all looking pretty natural. At the same time it was freeing Marj up too.
It was a beginning, a way of working that she pursued and refined for 27 years with the goal of bringing more naturalness into Alexander’s work, to ridding it of its ritualistic formality, its starchiness, to making it extraordinarily ordinary. She passed this ball onto me, and I caught it and have been running with it for 38 years. That’s 65 years of research. We’re getting somewhere.
Marj was a gymnast as a kid, and later studied modern dance with some of its pioneers: the Duncan Dancers, Ted Shawn, and Ruth Saint Denis. She rode horses all through her life, well into her 80’s. She loved to move. I remember seeing a photo of Marj in her 20’s seemingly floating in the air, high above the ground, suspended at the top of a high leap, and under her the inscription, The Wild One. In the photo her body was masculine, strong and muscular. Most of us met Marj in her 70’s and 80’s and saw a slender, petite, slow moving, slow speaking, elderly woman with an intense sparkle in her eyes.
After graduating from Alexander’s first teacher training program, Marj actively taught the Alexander Technique for eight years along side of A.R. Alexander, assisting him in Boston and Philadelphia. When Marj’s father died, she moved back to Lincoln, Nebraska to help run her family ranch. For over twenty years Marj rarely taught the Alexander Technique. She lived the life of a rancher. Marj told me that it was only after years of hard, physical labor that she really learned how to bring the technique into her everyday life. Marj was profoundly physical.
This brought something dynamic and practical into Marj’s work. She could see movement. She knew what good coordination looked like, in people and in animals. She trained world famous quarter horses. Alexander too was an avid rider, and began riding as a child. I think this contributed to their subtle ability to lead movement without force.
Marj preferred Alexander’s earlier description of “a true and primary movement in each and every activity,” rather than his later reference to the Primary Control. This inner control was a result of an effortless movement that reorganized the head in relation to the torso, and the head and torso to the limbs. So Marj focused, pretty much exclusively, on this primary movement.
Often she’d say, “It’s a movement.” And it was this movement, and what resulted from it, that we watched six hours a day, day after day, until we knew it inside and out. We saw that it had a particular quality, (ever so delicate), that it initiated from a particular area, (from the relationship between the head and neck), that it had a sequence, (there was a kind of rapid rippling response as a result of this subtle movement initiated between the neck and head), but that this rippling was so rapid, as to look and feel simultaneous with the initiation of this primary movement, hence Marj’s phrase, “the head leads and the whole body immediately follows.” And Alexander’s phrase, “altogether, one after the other.” So we discerned a particular timing inside of the sequencing. It was a bit like when you drop a stone into the calm surface of a pond, and rings form rippling out, one after the other and all of them widening and expanding at the same time. Then this primary movement had particular directionality; the head seemed to float up, rising like a boat resting upon the water as the tide slowly rose. Then we saw that the head had this tiny tipping motion forward, a rotational movement on a horizontal axis that happened at the same time the tide was rising, which we could see was the spine decompressing. As all this was happening we saw an omni-directional expansion of the body as a whole, almost like a sphere inflating in every direction, an overall increase in three dimensional volume, like bread dough rising, the whole body filling into its rightful space. At the same time we could see a gathering, strengthening movement within the expanding movement. It was similar to the dynamics of a vortex funnel, to centripetal and centrifugal force, the same force moving in opposite directions, one up and out and the other in and down. Maybe this was why Marj didn’t use the terms lengthening and widening, because of their two-dimensional connotation. Maybe this is why she spoke of the whole body rather emphasizing the back. She saw and we saw that everything was filling out: the back, the front, and the sides. Something was happening to the whole body in its entirety.
And out of this “true and primary movement”, this “easing up,” this “little bit of nothing,” we witnessed changes not only in the body, but in the person. We saw seemingly opposite qualities working in harmony. As the true and primary movement began to happen we beheld the person before us as stable and mobile, light and substantial, relaxed and ready, peaceful and vigorous, gathered and expansive, soft and powerful, open and focused, unified and articulate.
Essentially, we saw beauty. We saw people unveiled, people wholly themselves, authentic, honest. We saw integrity. It moved us. It moved some of us so much we decided that this was a good way to spend the rest of our lives.
This is Marj’s legacy to us. The gift given…the gift received… the gift given…the gift received…the gift given… from generation to generation.