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House And Home

handwriting

Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet

Letters To A Young Teacher

Bruce, you write, “Aren’t there more direct, fun, practical, and effective ways to work with how we react to stimuli from within and without besides endlessly getting people in and out of a chair?” My AT teacher at school would probably say: “Chair work will indirectly affect their use in everyday life – let them make the transfer.” So how does that tie in with your take on teaching “activity work”, which to my mind is not indirect, but direct? 

Thank you for your good question. My understanding is that when Alexander spoke of working indirectly he meant that when a person comes to you with a specific problem, let’s say, a frozen shoulder, working directly would be choosing to work immediately to regain range and comfort in the shoulder, through working on the shoulder. A reasonable idea. The approach in Alexander Work, if we are sticking to the principle of working indirectly, is to attend to a person’s overall integration and coordination, and in turn that may, (and may not), resolve the shoulder issue.

It’s a bit like family therapy. Let’s say the whole body is the family, and the hurting child is the frozen shoulder. The parents are fighting, a lot. The kid begins developing asthmatic symptoms. The problem may not lie within the child, but within the family dynamics as a whole. By the parent’s shifting their way of functioning, their child may begin to function differently as well. That, as I understand Mr. Alexander, is what he meant by working indirectly. Indirectly, that is, getting to the part through the whole.

Once you begin to get this idea of working indirectly, you begin to see that Alexander stumbled upon a very big idea, one that, now, everyone understands. If bees are beginning to disappear, or tree frogs, and you start looking for the cause inside the bee world, or the tree frog world instead of backing up and looking at the entire world they inhabit, their larger body, of which bees and tree frogs are an integral part, you won’t see the whole problem, or find the solution.

Alexander discerned an ecology within people, an inner ecology – the study of our inner house and home, in relation to our larger house and home.  (You could say we are the overlap through which our inner and outer environments become one.) Alexander, seen in this light, was a holistic and ecological thinker and practitioner.

As for working through Alexander’s “conventional” procedures, that is, the procedures that have  become the norm within today’s Alexander world, I am not an expert. Yes, I have worked with lots of teachers, including most of the first generation teachers who employed these procedures and, to the best of my limited ability, I have taught through these procedures as well. But I have spent more time learning about Alexander’s work through his less conventional procedures – walking, going up and down steps (lunge work is beautifully woven within this action),  the performing arts, speaking, and everyday activities. These were the procedures that my mentor, Marj Barstow, enjoyed and explored. Consequently, these are the procedures I have taught through most successfully.

Over the years I began to sense that working through Marj’s procedures were, in a way, working too directly, too specifically, but for a very different reason than your teacher might think. I started to see that any activity happened within a larger context, and that I had to zoom both further in, and further out if I was to work holistically or ecologically. That’s why I no longer refer to what I do as “working in activity.” I call it “working situationally.”

For example, a young man is late. He jumps up from his desk, swings on his coat, hops in his car, squeals out his driveway, double parks, runs up three flights of stairs, knocks on his girlfriends apartment door, and waits, standing there, reliving that phone call, the fight they had that morning, feeling like a total jerk, wondering if she will open the door or not, whether she will ever speak to him again, whether she will call off their engagement, and what his parents will say.

Okay. You could work with this poor, distraught young man by taking him in and out of a chair, a la Alexander, or work with him driving his car, walking up steps, and knocking on a door, a la Marj Barstow. Still, are you really going to get to the precise inner and outer stimuli that cause this man to fall apart, to lose his psycho-physical composure, his integrity?

If I am going to work with this man in his entirety, in relation to his inner and outer home, then I may need to address such factors as his relationship to time, how he listens to his girlfriend when she is feeling insecure and starts criticizing him, how he reacts when he starts believing thoughts like his being a total jerk, or what happens to him when he starts caring too much about what other people think about him. But I am going to figure out a way to do this somatically and personally, not psychologically or clinically. I’m going to “stick to principle” and work as the Alexander teacher that I am.

Not our postural habits, nor our movements habits per se, (though they are part of the picture), but our habits of life, these are the habits we are attempting to unearth, and bring into the light of day, to be seen, felt, and known, accepted, and resolved. This is, for me, profoundly humbling work, both personally and as a teacher. Sometimes I wonder if I’m making any progress at all. I wonder if I will ever really be able to live and teach Alexander’s work. Forty years later, I begin to understand Marj when she would say, “I really don’t know how to teach this work.”

I really don’t.

Not knowing has for me become a good thing. It keeps me questioning, as you are questioning. It keeps me experimenting. It keeps the work fresh and alive in my soul, as it is in yours.

Let’s keep going.

Yours,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

A Wordless Whisper

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

 

Not many folks like the wind out here. Yes, there are times, in the late afternoon, when the breeze, like waves, comes rolling in from the west, trees swaying, branches bending, and you can hear the ocean in the wind, the way when, as a child, you held a conch to your ear and heard the ocean winds whistling, wondering how that could be.

Then, without notice, the wind builds, picking up dust and dirt, traveling like some brown caped ghost, it envelops you, takes you, knocks your hat off, throws sand into your eyes, pushes you from behind, hard, not letting up, for hours.

Why I don’t mind the wind, no matter how relentless, I don’t know. It’s the world breathing, beckoning. It’s like God’s hand, stroking, nudging, pushing me forward. It’s God’s wordless whisper, “Bruce, wake up, wake up, wake up.”

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.  – John 3:8

That’s okay with me. Hearing the wind is enough. Feeling the wind against my face is enough. My job’s not to know, but to be known.

The Stampede

The Red Hats

There’s nothing quite like real life.

Helping people who come to our studio for lessons to become more physically and personally comfortable really does help. Sometimes a lot. It’s a beginning. Helping a person experience this newfound liveliness as they engage in an activity, like playing a violin, or doing the dishes, or working at a computer takes the work beyond the bodyself and into the world of action, and interaction, into life. My teacher, Marjorie Barstow, was masterful when it came to “working in activity” within a group setting. That stands as a major pedagogical contribution. Overtime, for me, “working in activity” evolved, transforming itself into “working situationally.”

It was some years ago, a workshop in Lubeck, Germany, an elementary school teacher wanted to work on teaching. I said, “Sounds good, lets do it. What’s the most stressful moment look like for you when you’re teaching?” She says,” When class is over and the students are running either out the door, or to my desk, while simultaneously, the next class is running through the same door and  into the classroom, or toward my desk.” “How’s that feel,” I ask?  She says, “ I feel bombarded”, and I observe her as she answers my question, her eyes wide open, her lips apart, her body arching back, her hands springing up in front of her like a shield, her breath held high in her chest.

To the fifteen other people in the room I say, “Okay, let’s make a classroom.” I ask the teacher where the door is in relation to her desk and the students proceed to set up the room, happy to be participating. I watch everyone move and interact. My job is to get to know people, so I sit back and watch as much as I can.

The room’s set up. The teacher is standing in front of her desk. Half the students are in their seats, the other half ready to stampede into the room. Everyone understands that they now are 9 or 10 years old. “Okay, go!” I watch the scene as it unfolds. I see what I need to see.

The teacher’s eyes are bugging out of her head, mouth open, body arching back, hands behind her, elbows locked, hands pressing down against the edge of the desk, knuckles white, body rigid. She’s virtually paralyzed, appearing much like she did when responding to my earlier question, though much more pronounced.  I get all the “kids” to pipe down and to prepare for “take two.”

I ask the teacher to sit behind the desk. She wondered why she had not thought of that. Once in her chair, I ask her to pull her chair forward, closer to the desk, and then to sit back, to let herself rest against the back of the chair, to let the chair support her body. I invite her to feel how the chair comes up under her and supports her pelvis and her thighs too. I have her rest her hands in her lap, and her feet on the floor. Gently, I use my hands to help her decompress her spine, I make her aware of her facial tension until she is able to release her jaw, let her tongue rest, which softens her breathing and her ribs. I encourage her to feel the weight of her eyelids until her forehead relaxes. I watch her arms disarm, her legs ungrip.

I tell her, even though a batch of kids may arrive at her desk in the near future, seemingly all at once, that one student will get her attention first. “Turn and look at that student and address only that student as if she were the only person in the room. Give her all the time she needs. When you feel finished, notice the next student who catches your attention and do the same. Just see what happens. You won’t know until you give it a go. Okay?”  She says okay. Getting that commitment is important.

I give a nod, the kids flock toward her desk. The questions are coming from everywhere. Resting in her chair she turns her head toward one student and says, “Hi, what can I do for you?” She listens to the child, thinks for a moment, then replies. The other kids are desperately trying to get her attention while she’s living inside of a private world with this one student.  She smiles, and tells the child she looks forward to seeing her tomorrow. She turns to another student and says hello. Suddenly, a breeze of silence fills the room. The teacher continues to give her undivided attention to the second child. Gradually the students at her desk decide to leave until only two are left. She finishes, turns to the two other students and tells them she really wants to meet with them and that she’d like to do it after class. They sit down.

Working situationally.  If you bring a person’s real life into the classroom, they will more likely be able to bring what they experienced in the classroom into their real life.

That has been my experience.

Studies In Stillness

Still is not the same as immobile. Stillness is alive. For painters, objects are alive with texture, color, light, shape, dimension, weight, time. And they are always in relation to other objects and to gravity. They always exist in space. Objects sit. They rest.

Not only seeing, but feeling how objects exist in the world can help us. Objects know how to rest fully on the ground. They are not restless. They know how not to effort.  They’re not afraid to make contact, to give and receive weight. They don’t try to change themselves, or to be different than they are. They take a kind of pride in their inherent structures, as if saying to us, “I am what I am.”

We could learn a lot about presence and peace from them.

In Gregory Golbert, Ashes and Snow, we get to see, to feel, what the possession of these qualities look like within humans and animals. We get to see that for which we long. We get to see what our modern Western way of life has abandoned, no, has never known. We get to see the unknowable.

And we recognize the unknowable, because we are seeing what exists deep within us.

The question arises, are we courageous enough to become this still, this quiet, this alive?

And if we were courageous enough, and if we did become this still, this restful, what would happen to us?

Can we know the unknowable?

Watch and see.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSX444hQ5Vo

 

Confessions of a MonoTasker

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

I confess. I don’t enjoy doing more than one thing at a time. I don’t enjoy waiting on hold  for a real person to pick up while I am chatting on Facebook and listening to iTunes. That’s over the top for me. I can do it, but why?

When we are multi-tasking sometimes we are mono-sensing. When straining to read some small print on some chat window at the bottom of the screen that popped up just as I was getting ready to sign off on Facebook, my hearing, touching, and kinesthesia plummeted without my knowing it. When the person finally picks up on the other end of the line after 20 minutes, having forgotten all about them, I hussel through my open windows looking for the very little icon I have to click, not feeling much of anything other than a general sense of panic and that all too familiar tightness in my neck that goes with it. I can’t hear her because iTunes is still playing and a song just came on that reminds me of a really hard time in my life that I’d rather forget. I quickly locate the speaker-off button, push it, and that God awful song in gone as well as the woman’s voice I waited 20 minutes for, the women I need to speak with because yesterday my car insurance expired. I quickly push the speaker-on button and that song returns accompanied by a strange gulping sound meaning someone has just hung up on the other end,  like they did on that day I’m trying to forget.

That’s why I like doing one simple thing at a time, like washing dishes.  In fact, even doing one thing at a time for me is a lot. Because I am a multi-senser, often happily lost in a world of multi-sensorial experience. I’m washing a bowl. I’m enjoying its shape, visually and tactually. I’m listening to the water, feeling its coolness. (We’re all saving energy here in Japan). The sinks are lower here so I am finding a wider stance and a little more flexion in my leg joints. I feel like an athlete ready to wash a mound of dishes, the more the merrier. We’ve got an assembly line going. I’m washing. Yoshiko’s rinsing, and Masako’s drying. It’s great being with them. Warms my heart.

Maybe sometimes we’re doing more but living less. I don’t know. Maybe so. It’s worth considering.

An Alexander Riddle

What do these Alexander teachers have in common?

-Rivka Cohen

-Martha Hansen Fertman

– John Nichols

Marjorie Barstow

– Eileen Crow

Lena Frederick

– Celia Jurdant Davis

– Bryan Mckenna

Elisabeth Walker

-Bruce Fertman

-Eva Fuhrmann

-Lucia Walker

-Astrid Lobreyer

– David Gorman

– Bill Conable

– Tommy Thompson

-Irene Schlump

– Nica Gimeno

-Yehuda Kuperman

-Margarete Tueshaus

-Ann-Katrin Fliege

-Caren Bayer

– Marie Francoise Le Foll

-Lyra Butler-Denman

-Christine Trägar

-Yoko Yasuda

– Doris Dietchy

-Mareike Klemm

– Anne Waxman

-Annie Turner

-Hiroko Uno

-Hendrik Klein

-Wendy Waggener

-Robyn Avalon

– Midori Shinkai

Sally Swift

– Jeremy Chance

-Rosalia Galassi

– Gilles Estran

Buzz Gummere

– Judy Stern

-Ruth Davis

-Atsuko Nakai

– Barbara Conable

Erika Whittaker

-Yoshiko Hayashi

– Michael Gelb

-Sakiko Ishitsubo

– Glenna Batson

-Jenny Quick

– Beret Arcaya

– Carol Boggs

-Britta Brandt-Jacobs

-Kay Kim

– David Mills

Frank Ottiwell

– Meade Andrews

– Pete Trimmer

-Magdalena Gassner

– Michael Frederick

– Rosa Louisa Rossi

– Frank Sheldon

– Michael Mazur

– Lyn Charlsen

– Susan Sinclair

-Alexandra Bushmann

– Cynthia Mauney

– Jan Baty

-Rob and Zoana Gepner-Muller

-Barbara Kent

– And no doubt a few others I cannot remember at the moment.

Answer: Each one of these 70 teachers was welcomed, and is welcomed, and taught either as a guest teacher, a former faculty member, or now teaches at The Alexander Alliance in America, Germany, Japan, or Korea, or served on the faculty at the Sweet Briar Summer Course in the Alexander Technique, which was required for Alexander Alliance trainees in America as part of their training.

Another Answer: I, and so many Alliance trainees, got to learn from all of them. How lucky to have studied with such an array of fine teachers.

Sparkling

Once long ago I asked Peg Gummere how old she was.  She leaned forward and whispered, “Can you keep a secret?” I whispered back, “Yes.”  She smiled, paused, and then said, “So can I.”

I never did find out her exact age. But today I did. Today I called and spoke with Peg. Her memory is a thing of the past, as memory is, but in the present Peg is as she always was, lively, kind, and completely interested in you.  She had Marjory Benjamin, a woman who helps her, write down my name and number, thinking that her children might want to know I had called. Marjory told me next month would be Peg’s birthday. I said, “Really! How old will she be? “ Marjory said, “Ninety-five.”

Peg had great teachers, and a great education. She studied drawing with Kimon Nicolaides at the Arts Students League in New York, violin with Dr. Suzuki, and the Alexander Technique with F.M. Alexander. Like Alexander, she was also an avid rider. Peg could see, hear, and move. Her senses were wide open. Whatever happened to education like that?

In 2000, when Buzz Gummere, Peg’s husband, was 90, and Peg a mere 84, (now I know), they decided at the last minute to join us for our first Alexander Alliance retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. They found a flight, flew across the country, rented a car, drove for three hours, and showed up at Ghost Ranch just in time for class.

One night, sitting around a fire, under the stars, sipping on some red wine Buzz started talking about Alexander. Peg, as usual, slightly bowed her head, lowered her eyes, and listened intently. Buzz said,

“You’ve haven’t seen people wearing spats have you?  Well, a British gentleman would most certainly have a set of those fine woolen things that they put on over their feet to keep their ankles warm in cold weather.  Spats became a sign of somebody who was aspiring to be aristocratic.  Alexander had a perfect British accent.  You could not hear that he was from Australia.  Here was a very polished person.  Alexander was a very lovely person too, in a lot of ways, but underneath, he was a real wild man.   That tension must have been very intense in him.  Peg, tell us about F.M. from your point of view. 

Peg: He loved horses.  He rode till the end of his days.  He was a live wire.  He didn’t seem like an old man at all, even up to the late years.  He was sparkling.

Buzz: What was that last word?

Peg: Sparkling.

And, if I were pressed to find one word for Peg, that would be the word,

Sparkling.