Dance your way to a happier you

Once upon a time I went to Burning Man, and it did not radically change my life. But it did make some helpful minor adjustments, and nudged me in the right direction. For example, I would never have taken up barefoot hippie dancing on a Sunday morning, otherwise. And that would have been a terrible loss.

Allow me to back up and set the scene. It’s a dusty hot Burning Man day, and I am napping at Center Camp, under one of the fabric “wings” extending out from the circular structure and providing much-coveted shade. It’s a busy part of Black Rock City, but the noise is lulling, along with the heat.  Through shallow dreams, I hear drumming, and wake up suddenly with one very clear thought: “I think I need to go dance.” I followed the sound to a group of percussionists, some 10-15 strong, each with a white painted instrument. There was no melody, only the flow of rhythm, and the stage-like circular clearing was already full of dancers. I kicked off my dusty boots and joined in. In my long purple skirt, in my yellow headscarf covering dust-calcified pigtails, dancing to the evolving rhythm, I felt more in the moment than I had felt in years. I was fully present in my body, and unselfconsciously, ridiculously happy.

There is no way to tell this story without it sounding cheesy. Here was my transformational Burning Man moment, dancing barefoot with strangers! But it stuck with me. I have fits of moodiness and anxiety, and there are few reliable ways to get through it, but of those, movement – usually hiking – helps the most. Music helps too. Yoga and meditation, these things that slow down the body and were supposed to slow down the mind, only made me more fidgety and distracted. But I have always loved to dance, anything from ballroom to salsa to Georgian folk dance to swing to the local top 40-spinning bar. Dance, I realized, had everything I needed.

It was my tremendous luck to be living in the Bay Area when this thought occurred to me, and soon, half by accident, I stumbled on Ecstatic Dance. It was not an immediately reassuring title. I imagined religious overtones or self-important ceremony, but vowed to give it a try – and fell in love.

Imagine a giant ballroom: tall windows, wood floors, morning light. Imagine music – world, trance, soul, hip hop – not shy of rhythm. Imagine people of all shapes and ages dancing ridiculously, beautifully, unselfconsciously, alone or with partners, with eyes closed, faces focused, or openly grinning. Some might be professional dancers, others can’t quite keep a beat; some stay in one spot on the dance floor, others weave curlicues around the other dancers. It is like that Burning Man moment, but without the dust, and afterwards we all disperse to our regular Sunday relaxation or errands.

The E-dance community certainly skews towards yoga instructors, astrologers and vegan chefs. People will tell you with un-ironic gravity that their life motto is “dharma not drama,” or offer to do a crystal grid attunement for you. There is an altar at the side of the dance space, and will feature, from day to day, gilded Buddhas or a giant crystal, and always tealights. The dance will end occasionally with rolling ohms. This is not my scene. But this is ok. I do not pray or activate nor attune myself to vibrations – or maybe I do, and simply call it by a different name. Because all I know is, it makes me feel present, and happy, and grounded.

I think of all the partner dancing I have done, of the rigidity and polish of competitive ballroom dancing, or the stylized and formal Georgian dance. Then I think what a release it is to move as ridiculously and freely and informally as I want, as reserved or as exuberant as I choose.  It is incredibly freeing to be in your body, feeling no judgment, only the positive energy of the other crazy people around you, dancing on a Sunday morning. It’s wonderful. You should try it.


Life as language mnemonic

I know few enough words in Turkish that I can remember when and where I learned many of them over the last 2 months. Some words float up unbidden and I cannot recall why I know them. But other words take on associations for me, like songs or scents, with certain scenes in my Turkish life. They are more useful than any mnemonic I’ve come up with so far.

Yumurta, the word for “egg”, is an appropriate start. It is the first word I used in my first Turkish errand. Unfortunately,  I learned torba and çorba around the same time. A one-letter difference leaves little margin of error; I hoped to tell the shopkeeper that I had my own bag (torba) for groceries – instead, I told him soup (çorba) was not necessary.

Dikkat – careful! – I learned attempting to cross the streets in Kars. I have since figured out that streetlights are observed at only 3 of the town’s intersections. The rest are decorative.

Yağmur, rain, I first heard standing at the top of the Kars castle, watching the sky broil and darken with a forceful May thunderstorm. The word, all vowel sounds, seemed too gentle for the rushing dark clouds heading directly for us.

Çamur is mud – an appropriate rhyme with rain. Both the word and the substance were hard to miss, walking through a village in sneakers and hoping to stay on my feet, nor trapping my shoes in the stuff. The village kids were delighted that I had increased my vocabulary by one with their help.

I learn the word for “cheese” not in a grocery store but through an introduction to our neighbors’ yellow cat, Peynir. I am relieved that I didn’t test my comprehension by calling “here, cheese, cheese!” to any local strays. To add to my animal confusion, I live with a cat named Baykuş = “owl”.

Dut is mulberry, my favorite childhood fruit. On a trip to Diyarbakir, I went for a walk with Couchsurfing friend, who took me below the city walls and along the Tigris River. We ate our fill from the trees we passed, hands stained violent purple-red. I’ve never been more motivated to keep learning.

Daydreams in the Ani ruins

The first time I saw Ani, it was grey-wet with rainclouds and bursting at the seams with wildflowers, and I felt like I had walked into a dream. Most of this medieval Armenian capital has either been destroyed or remains hidden under rolling grassy mounds. Only a few churches and a mosque punctuate the angle-less landscape. In the rain, seeking shelter in a ruined cathedral – the caved-in dome letting in a cylinder of rain – we were alone with the landscape and the swallows in the eves. We could have been the last people on Earth.

I came back to Ani again in clear morning sunshine, expecting some of that magic to wear off, burned off by the clear blue glare, diluted by the shuffling groups of tourists. But walking along the riverside cliffs, looking across to Armenia over the heads of a monastery chapel and a crumbling bridge, or brushing against the columns of a Zoroastrian fire temple – that feeling was back again. It hits me in the gut, squeezes my ribs. This place used to be filled with markets, children, religious festivals, weddings, funerals, construction, commerce, military processions. And now there is only the broken geometry of grudgingly restored buildings.

Ani Cathedral, on a rainy June day

Ani Cathedral, on a rainy June day

How can a city go from a bustling trading center of 100,000 residents to a forgotten ruin, from the City of 1001 Churches to a leveled plain of broken churches? I can see the spiraling steps of a minaret lying queasily on its side. The market stalls are stone outlines filled with poppies. The frescoes are fading. The rust and black checkered walls cave in. I close my eyes and imagine I have retro-X-ray vision – the hillocks are now houses, the churches stand side by side with palaces, the city walls are unbroken, the bridge is restored and the streets are busy with Silk Road traffic. I open my eyes and it is full of ghosts.

I can’t say why this place affects me so strongly, after all the ruins I’ve seen. Maybe it’s the vastness of it, or the isolation; or perhaps it’s the contentious history, its years of neglect. I watch the swallows burst through the narrow clerestory windows, strobing through light and shadow in the high nave. I want to be alone with the ruins, retreating to the past, both fearful and relieved about how everything changes.

Motion blur impressions of Turkey

Turkish inter-city buses will deliver you to your destination, but the gently winding potholed roads will lull you into a doze and warp your views of the countryside, reality smudged around the edges, odd details jumping out.

In mountain passes, you will wonder if you are seeing sheep or scattered rockfall. You will pass queues of cows, tumbledown houses topped with satellite dishes, green fields, yellow fields, pink fields. You will challenge yourself to name wildflowers colors in Turkish, but despite the abundance of subjects, this game will be very short. You will attempt to make conversation with your assigned seatmate, always carefully chosen to be female, and to explain in awkward, uninflected strings of Turkish words why and where you are traveling. You will lapse into silence.

You will pass goslings watched over by women, geese herded by men; children, roadside, waving bunches of wild greens for sale. A man selling a fresh caught fish, and a few hundred meters down the road, a boy selling a smaller fresh-caught fish. Mosques and untethered horses and old weathered snow patches. You will count white-painted or stone-brown minarets. You could make it into a game, with a friend, but you are traveling solo, so your reward is uncontested access to the hazelnuts and dried apricots bought for the journey.

You will pass alien fields of craggy black lava stones extending into an early-morning mist. You will pass fields of Martian-red poppies as Mt. Ararat towers in the distance. Half asleep, you will be startled by a white minaret needle in scaffolding that you mistake for a rocket about to launch.

Starting over, in Turkish

I have studied Turkish for 2 months and lived here for 1. It’s an ongoing challenge:

A month into living in Kars, listening to the flow of Turkish speech still feels like drowning in a river, grabbing on to the driftwood of the few words I recognize. This is simultaneously exhilarating and deeply frustrating. Out of the stream of this incomprehensible language, I manage to catch familiar words, which feels like a minor miracle. But then I am stuck holding the orphan words with no context. The stream keeps flowing by and drowns me once again. Continue reading…

“Out of sight, out of…?”

A little over a month ago, when I wrapped up my life in San Francisco and moved to eastern Turkey, I knew that as long as I had an internet connection, I would never be too far. So what if I wasn’t there in person? With Facebook, Gchat, Skype, I would not forget or be forgotten, and if I was a bit remote for a while, so much the better for an eventual excited reunion.

I like living in Kars. Our house has a large kitchen, a sunny porch, chickens pecking in the yard. A castle overlooks the town center. Summer weather is mild, fresh produce is plentiful, and the hikes outside of town are painfully picturesque. I take many photos of the beautiful surroundings and of my travels further abroad. I enjoy my work. And yet… I cannot help the occasional sinking feeling that comes with realizing that I am quite far from my community. After two months studying Turkish, I can barely hold a simple conversation, limiting my socializing to the 3-4 English speakers in Kars, all connected to my company – a wonderful, but small, group. My narrow bridge to my US friends is through my computer.

A rainy afternoon in Kars

A rainy afternoon in Kars

Community is not just about physical closeness; it is about shared experiences. Despite responses to my Facebook posts, there is a frequently a sense of disconnect with the world I’ve left behind for these few months. Perhaps because my life here is so different that few people feel equipped to make small talk about it. Perhaps because they feel that they already know what is going on, seeing the photos.

Sometimes the illusion of connection, aided by Facebook, is so strong that it feels irrelevant that only a handful of people have a complete picture of my life here. “Didn’t that sunset photo of the castle get 20 ‘likes’? See, people care about me!” But Facebook is a false and selective medium of communication. I do not post pictures of minor daily annoyances, of the ankle-deep mud nor of our unsteady house appliances. I do not complain of the discomfort of not being able to take evening walks in a Turkish city without being stared at. I do not talk about the isolation of not speaking the language, the difficulty it causes in completing even simple daily tasks. I enjoy the challenge, but living here is not a cartoon of an adventure – it’s life, with all its difficulty and complexity.

This is not the first time I have felt emotional distance, caused by the physical. Living abroad in Spain at 16 for a year, I communicated with the now-quaint AIM Messenger with friends back home, who stayed up late just to chat with me once or twice a week. I spoke on the phone only to my parents, and rarely. There was no Skype, no Facebook, and I did not own a digital camera. I sent postcards and real printed photographs and emails. When I felt lonely, I read books, I talked to my host family, I daydreamed. Now, when I feel lonely, I log into Gchat and hope that someone is up late or up early. But conversations are dissatisfying when I cannot talk openly, when the answer to “how are things going over there?” is expected to be “amazing!” It is only rare close friends who ask that question honestly and expect a more nuanced answer.

It is hard to explain why I am here, and what daily life is like, and what cultural differences emerge. Problems and questions that plagued me at home do not disappear simply by moving to a new place, but in conversation they become secondary to the superficial exoticism of living in a new county. Explaining that takes work, and so does listening. I am not innocent – I, too, have lapsed in communicating with friends who move away, because of the amount of individualized effort it takes to be in touch with their new life. So I hold no grudges. But, stronger than ever, I feel I am overdue to write a batch of personalized emails. From this side of the world, I see that Facebook is no longer enough.


Kars smells like dust and freshly baked bread. Like cigarette smoke. Sometimes, like cloying baklava syrup, or the tartness and musk of strong cheese. When you pass the abandoned houses, it smells like mildew and rust.

It smells like lilacs.

On the edges of town, it smells like mountains. The sharp farm smell of cows, grazing sheep.

A grey-blue storm cloud rolls in slowly, lilac lightning illuminating it in flashes. And the smell of rain and lilacs. For a moment, I am surrounded by lilac on all sides, filling all my senses.