Barn’s burnt down –
I can see the moon.
photo by B. Fertman
Barn’s burnt down –
I can see the moon.
photo by B. Fertman
A Tradition of Orginality
During our last conversation Marj said to me that one person can only do so much. She was thinking about her life and her contributions but she was, in her understated way, also telling me to get going.
Marj opened important doors for us. Most importantly, she kept the door of originality wide open. F.M. was original. So was Marj. I felt and still feel obligated to carry this tradition of originality forward.
Being original doesn’t mean being different just to be different. It means being in touch with the origins. It means dipping way down into that deep well of nothingness from which grace appears. “All I’m trying to do is show you a little bit of nothing.” She did, and it was everything.
This nothingness from which true originality springs is the source of our work. You cannot copy originality, because once you copy it it’s no longer original. Being original happens when we dip down into that deep well of emptiness which is forever alive and fresh. Marj drew her work out of that deep well, day in and day out, for so many of us.
Marj kept doors open that, without her, might have closed forever. Sometimes Alexander worked with people in activities. Marj found this way of working to be the most direct and personal approach to helping people become sensitive and capable of putting into practice what they were beginning to understand about themselves.
Marj enjoyed her training, which took place in the context of a group, and she saw no good reason why group teaching should only be limited to trainees. Everyone could benefit from watching and listening to others.
Marj wove together these two aspects of Alexander’s work – working in activity and group study – magically transforming and enlivening Alexander’s work for us.
Marj admired and respected her teachers: F.M. and A.R. Alexander, Ethel Webb, Irenie Stuart, and Irene Tasker. She knew that none of these fine teachers had ever graduated from a three-year teacher-training course. She knew that a small group of F.M.’s teachers had learned from him more informally, over a longer period of time. She admired these teachers, and she decided to bring about Alexander teachers based on this older, original model of training through apprenticeship.
Marj didn’t want people to stop living their lives to study Alexander’s work. She wanted us to bring Alexander’s work into the lives that we were currently living. For many of us that meant incorporating the work into our lives as performing artists, and as teachers.
I remember the first time I ever spoke to Marj. At Ed Maisel’s recommendation, I called her up and asked if I could study with her in Lincoln, Nebraska, at her Winter of 1975 workshop.
She asked me what I did. I told her I studied the Alexander Technique. She said, “Is that all? Is that all you do?” I said no, I also was a modern dancer, and studied T’ai Chi Chu’an and Aikido. Then she said, “Now that sounds like fun. You can come along.”
Marj liked working with people who were passionate about what they did. She liked working with people exactly when they were doing what they loved doing most, whatever that was… singing, dancing, acting, playing instruments, icing a cake, juggling, fencing, gardening, or throwing horse shoes, which was something Marj liked and that I liked doing with her.
Marj brought life to the work, and the work to life. It was as simple as that.
Like Alexander, Marj felt that institutions could not hold the truth, so she kept to herself, did her work, and made certain it was good. She kept the original apprenticeship model of becoming an Alexander teacher open, and for me, and for many of my colleagues, this approach to training was joyous, powerful and effective. Without this model of training it would have been impossible for many of us to become teachers.
There is one last door that Marj opened for which she remains relatively unknown. In fact, by some odd twist of fate Marj seems to have become known for attempting to close this door!
I had just finished teaching a workshop for teachers in Berlin.
The head, of what was then GLAT, had experienced my work at the Australian Congress and then and there invited me to teach in Berlin. He went on to teach at my school in Germany, and even came to America to study at my school in America. One of the teachers at this workshop in Berlin remarked about how skillfully I worked with my hands and how much I used my hands when I taught. She was under the impression that Barstow teachers didn’t use their hands much when they taught.
My heart sank. What moved me most about Marj was how she used her hands as a teacher. I fell deeply in love with her ability to bring about such beauty with utterly no force. For many years I watched people unfold and grow under Marj’s hands. I made a vow never to stop teaching until my hands were at least as good as Marj’s hands. I’ve held true to that vow.
When Marj died I was teaching in Japan.
For a couple days I seemed fine, and then it hit me. I was overwhelmed by dread, by doubt, that I had missed something, not heard something, that I didn’t learn what I was supposed to learn, that I failed her as a student. I didn’t know what to do. And then, suddenly, I knew.
I knew finally and completely that even though Marj is gone, the source remains. There in that deep well of nothingness is everything that I missed, everything that I did not hear, everything that I have yet to learn.
Photo: B. Fertman
Perhaps you have or have not seen the film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. If you have, what I say here will likely make you want to see it again. If you haven’t, you’ll be trying to find out where and when this film is showing.
Not because it’s about sushi, because it is about Jiro. If you’re an Alexander teacher, or if you are someone who uses your hands in your work, which is pretty much everyone, Jiro has a lot to teach you, a lot to show you.
Jiro is 85 years old. Growing up was difficult, not easy. But Jiro made it. Jiro became the embodiment of Bushido, the samurai code of honor.
Jiro’s hands do not look 85 years old because of the way he has used them in his work for 75 years. Nor does his body. Watch how he stands. Watch how he walks. Watch how he works.
You will see much in Jiro’s hands. You will see how free they are. You will see how there is no distortion in his hands. Most people, half Jiro’s age, already have what physical therapists refer to as “natural hand distortion.” Natural hand distortion may be normal, but it is not natural. Jiro’s hands are natural. When Marjorie Barstow, my primary Alexander teacher, was 92, (the last time I saw her), her hands looked just like Jiro’s hands.
Jiro’s hands often curve in a kind of semi-circle. His fingertips gently curl over as the center of his palm floats back, creating a recess in his hand. His wrists are relaxed, the underside of the wrist, the fair skinned side of the wrist lengthens slightly and opens. When his hands are working they are also resting.
Jiro’s hands are flexible. They assume any shape they need to, without undue effort, as he sculpts his ephemeral works of art to the delight of his patrons. My friend and teacher Erika Whittaker would have loved Jiro’s soft, sensitive, supple hands. No doubt.
Erika began studying Alexander’s work when she was eight years old with her aunt, Ethel Webb. She kept studying for another 85 years. Erika was smart, astute, articulate, unassuming, and truly kind, yet not the least bit sentimental. Her memory was sharp, and she was not afraid to say it as she saw it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQ_j0ksWRN0
Once Erika told me that the way Alexander taught students how to use their hands, and how Alexander actually used his hands were as different as night is from day. Erika said Alexander hands were strong and flexible, and non-formulaic. She said it looked and felt as if he was sculpting you from the inside out. There was no technique, no method.
Elisabeth Walker, currently our oldest living teacher, and another woman who brims with kindness, once gave me a photograph of Alexander working with a student’s ankle. She wanted me to understand that Alexander didn’t just work with a person’s head and neck. He went wherever he needed to go, did whatever he needed to do. Alexander was not bound by any “technique.” Everyday he just did his work. He worked on his craft, in a state of divine dissatisfaction and deep joy, like Jiro. That’s what masters do.
People who know me well feel my devotion to Alexander’s work. That is exactly the reason why I am, at times, saddened by what I see in the Alexander world. Erika was too. I remember sitting next to Erika watching a room full of lively Alexander teachers working together. She leaned over to me and whispered, “Look at those pancake hands! How are you supposed to be able to feel anything or communicate anything with hands like that?” Erika was a kind person. Obviously Alexander did not have pancake hands. She wasn’t being mean or critical. She was concerned. That’s all. She wanted us to have hands like Jiro.
Early on, 51 years ago, I learned how to use my hands functionally. By ten I defined myself as a gymnast, working out six hours a day, six days a week. As gymnasts we taught each other, and sometimes saved each other’s lives, by using our hands. We knew how to bring each other back into balance. Later, studying Aikido and Tai Chi, I learned more about using my hands functionally and sensitively, ironically so I could lead people off their balance.
But it was studying Chanoyu, Japanese Tea Ceremony, that taught me most about my hands. In Chado you learn how to prepare and serve food, and tea. You learn how to use an array of utensils. Every little movement becomes vital. You learn the simplest, easiest, most functional, and most beautiful way of doing every little thing. You learn how to serve. You learn more about a person through the way they use their hands than you do by looking at their face.
So when I see hands like Jiro’s, I bow deeply. I am moved. I weep without knowing exactly why. Perhaps from my sheer love of beauty, perhaps from witnessing such unwavering dedication.
May we all learn from Jiro, and from his hands, and one day, like Jiro, may our method become no method, our teaching no teaching. And may we become free, like Jiro, through a complete, lifelong, and joyful commitment to our work.
photo: Bruce Fertman
Violence sweeps through the county of Hu. In the small village of Chu Jen, people gather in their small temple to sit and pray. A large, drunken man barrels into the sanctuary. He’s yelling into people’s faces. He spits at a women. He slaps her child. No one moves. No one breathes. Everyone hopes he will stop, and go away.
A powerful man, a warrior, stands up, ready to take this man down and throw him out. Li Tan, an old man, quietly walks between them and says, “Please, let me talk to this fellow.” The old man looks into the drunken man’s eyes. The man is ashamed to look at Li Tan, but Li Tan keeps looking and waiting. When the man catches sight of the old man’s loving eyes, he becomes still, and sad.
The old man asks him if he wouldn’t mind sitting down next to him. The soldier also sits close to Li Tan. Li Tan faces the sad man, takes the big man’s quivering hand, holds it softly between his deeply creased, warm palms and says, “Son, tell me what is wrong. What happened?”
The man begins crying. Then sobbing. While he was at work, soldiers came into his home. They killed his wife, his son, and his infant daughter. They set fire to his house. The old man puts his arms around the man sobbing. They weep as one person, weeping.
The soldier stands up. He looks down at the two men. His big chest sinks. He bows slowly to Li Tan. Lowering onto his hands and knees, his forehead against the wooden floor, he bows to the father who has just lost his family.
The soldier joins the other people from his village and begins to pray.