Using what I have

"Do not fear going slowly. Fear only standing still"

In the 1970s and early '80s, I ran marathons, biked 200-mile (321.86km) weekend tours, performed corporeal mime, took modern dance and ballet, played tennis, other words, I was active. My creative challenge over the past decade has been to remain active within the limits set by a chronic progressive condition.

Living alone in hilly San Francisco during the winters of 1997 and '98, I had no car. Going to the laundromat, getting groceries, doing errands, seeing friends and enjoying the city's myriad activities--each time climbing up and down three flights of stairs to my sublet apartment--seemed to satisfy my body's need for exercise. But back in Michigan, where I live most of each year, it is too easy to sit back and relax. I drive a car wherever I need to go. My husband Ed does our grocery shopping and takes care of necessary chores. We have in-house laundry facilities and help cleaning the house. The terrain is flat, stretching beside a lake and a river that connect two of the Great Lakes, Huron and Erie. Exercise is a choice, not a given. Besides now that I'm a computer geek, we all know what that does to a body!

So I have searched out activities that I both enjoy and benefit from. Biking for one. For three seasons of the year, Ed and I ride a tandem bicycle. We've instituted a few modifications: toe-clips for me; a tennis racket-holder on the back for my cane; Ed's help lifting my leg over the frame when dismounting; and, most significantly, a high level of trust in my pilot and balance-keeper in the front! I also ride a recumbent three-wheeler (a Joyrider by Trailmate) in my neighborhood, and every August at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Since this bike has only one gear and the Festival land is gently rolling, I post a sign on the back saying, "I love pushy womyn!". Not to grow slack this past winter--even though I stayed home in snowy Michigan--I worked out on a stationary recumbent bicycle strategically placed near my computer (hint! hint!).

In September 1998, my friend Joan and I were driving back to Windsor, Ontario, after sighting a grand total of three butterflies during our expedition to view Point Pelee's annual Monarch Migration. Our car was diverted onto a county road because of an accident, and we passed a woman riding outside stables posted with the sign: Windsor-Essex Therapeutic Riding Association. It was the first time I had ever heard of therapeutic horseback riding, which is for children and adults with disabling conditions. That autumn and winter, I enjoyed weekly riding lessons on a 27-year old mare named Cricket. Such a gift! After 35 years, to be back on a horse...this time with a ramp for mounting, strong arms to lift me, volunteers and staff (like Maureen in the photo) helping to lead the horses and offer instruction, an indoor heated ring, and an old crone with hair as white as mine on which to ride.

At the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival in 1995, I bought a beautiful woman-crafted ashiko drum. The flat palm used to beat this African-style drum counteracts my hands' tendency to "claw". More importantly, the pulse of the drum's heatbeat is a traditional healer. Over the years, gifted teacher/facilitators like Ubaka Hill, Paloma, and Lori Fithian have helped me become more comfortable with the power of the drum. But not until I became part of a weekly drumming circle in August 1998 did my drum become my friend...and the women in our circle, my sisters. With Ella Johnson, Pat Noonan and Pat Kolon at my side, life's celebrations and challenges are drummed into the earth and lifted high on the wings of song.

Because for me, even before the drum, came song. In the 1940s and '50s, singing rounds with my sisters in the back seat of our old Pontiac convertible, giggling at Dad's ukulele-accompanied "Stormy Weather" on our Chesapeake Bay cruises, in the Camp Mawavi mess hall after meals, in Falls Church, VA's Madison School was always there. In 1966, when Ed and I married, the first thing we bought together was an old mellow Chickering piano for him to play. Parents of the neighborhood kids who hung out at our house in the 1970s and early '80s were often surprised to hear such songs as "Perfidia" and "Begin the Beguine" out of the mouths of their 10-year-olds!  In the 1980s, I sang in Detroit gospel choirs, and more recently, with the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco, Detroit's One Voice chorus, and in the Bobby McFerron-inspired voicestra tradition with Joey Blake Saturday mornings at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley. New Year's Eve 1998, the 24-hour "Singing for our Lives", facilitated by some of the Bay Area's most gifted vocal improvisers, drew me and hundreds of circle-singers to San Francisco's Presidio chapel overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.

At the root of my joy these days are women's song circles. I have been blessed on Ontario's shores of Lake Erie singing at WOMANSPIRIT retreats with Carolyn McDade (photo at right with Carolyn playing keyboard), improvising with Rhiannon in the palm of California's redwoods, in Detroit every month with Nancy Nordlie and the Notable Women chorus, at WoMaMu (Women Making Music) camp with Judy Fjell on a hill overlooking California's vineyards, and in the One World Inspirational Choir with Aleah Long at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (see photo at left). Singing opens not only my throat but my heart. And an open heart is a heart open to be healed and to heal.

Once in a long while, healing appears unexpectedly as a life-jewel, a treasure to be held in one's heart and recalled with wonder in later years. At the National Women's Music Festival this June 1999, in a workshop titled "Love Songs to the Shadow: Improv with Spirit", such a moment occurred for me. I volunteered to be one of the bodies "played" by an extraordinary Sound bodyworker from Boulder, Colorado, Vickie Dodd. It's hard to articulate what happened, but the framework for it was my lying facedown on a massage table, circled by perhaps 20 women--among them, Kay Gardner playing flute, Mary Watkins on piano, Edwina Lee Tyler and Judy Piazza on drums; a cellist and flutist; Arisika Razak and Jill Emiko Togawa of San Francisco's Purple Moon Dance Project, dancing; still others vocalizing and toning; while a few sat in silence. Vickie played my body with her hands, fingering as on a piano my spinal cord, neck, head, legs and feet, while emitting sounds/songs through her voice that she "found" there. All in the room improvised with one I literally became the music, song, movement and silence. Words are inadequate. All I can say is that I experienced my body vibrating, my spirit soaring, my mind mesmerized. A communal moment--actually more like 30 minutes--of deep mystery, connection and healing for which I am deeply grateful. After the workshop I was delighted to learn that Vickie Dodd has recently published a book/CD set, Tuning the Blues to Gold: Soundprints, that can be ordered through e-mail at

In addition to exercise, drumming, singing and community, my body benefits from a combination of weekly acupuncture and massage by James Zheng, a gifted practitioner working in Windsor, Ontario and St. Clair Shores, MI, often supplemented by Chinese herbs prescribed by his wife and co-worker, Suzy Shuai. I am a seafood-eating vegetarian who avoids caffeine, alcohol and fried foods. My body's natural cycle usually includes 9-10 hours sleep a night. The only pills I take are multivitamins and occasionally aspirin for a headache.

Though I would never have consciously chosen disability as a growth-enhancing tool, it certainly affords that opportunity. Many of today's books and speakers offer the belief that individuals choose their path according to what lessons they need to learn. If this is so, my learnings are simple: 1) slow down; 2) notice and connect with all that is around you; 3) give up control; 4) ask for and receive help graciously; 5) live in the present; 6) be grateful.

© 1999 Patricia Lay-Dorsey. Please use with attribution.

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