To The French On Bastille Day! We Are All The People

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

 

When our new president swore on two bibles he would “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” a revolution stirred in my heart.

As a New York City Democrat who loves her conservative Hoosier family, I wanted to hold him to his promise without breaking ties. First, I needed to hear my thoughts.

On Inauguration Day, I visited the New York Public Library’s main branch on Fifth Avenue. Desperate to quell anxiety exacerbated by fake news and social media, I entered the great hush of the Rose Main Reading Room, known to many for its role in Ghostbusters.

By chance, I discovered artist Morgan O’Hara and a few of her companions vigorously scribbling at a long table. Their sign announced they would stay until closing time to handcopy the U.S. Constitution, the oldest written and continuously used governing constitution in the world that is more than 229 years old.

Smiling, I accepted the offer of paper and a marker from O’Hara’s stash of supplies. This was exactly what I needed, a patriotic reminder of a common set of values. I settled into a heavy wooden chair, feeling goosebumps creep up my neck.

As I re-penned “We the People,” I felt calm. My 7th grade teacher made my class memorize the Preamble in the 1980s. I imagined her low voice meld each syllable into a poem. Now I sensed “the Blessings of Liberty” as a fierce, fragile organism. Warmth moved into my hands and feet. My breath deepened.

When I checked my phone, verbal warfare invaded my cell phone. I watched in horror as a New England acquaintance started a Facebook pile-on. “Wash out your uneducated hick mouth and go back to Arkansas,” he typed to the stranger. Fans lobbed onto the post, forgetting that an actual human being was being torn apart. But the Constitution grounded me with its inclination toward fairness. Without thinking, I switched from print to cursive, surprised I still knew how to form the letters. To my relief, I found no mention of political parties, so toxic during the 2016 campaign.

The next day at the New York Women’s March, fear of crowds made me a pathetic protester. I emailed O’Hara, the conceptual artist I met at the library, to understand why I preferred her impromptu gathering to a mass demonstration. “Don’t make me out to be some hero,” said O’Hara, 76, who saw her event as a visual project, a way to return to basics and protest in silence. While she did not finish after six hours—predicting 14 for the whole task—the physical effort allowed her to sense how much tension went into making our laws.

Most of the Framers were wealthy. Many owned slaves. All were white men. Yet nearly everyone played a role in the Revolutionary War with more to lose than many of us with our smartphones and double lattes. Despite privileges, they were prepared to sacrifice everything to form a republic.

Centuries later, I imagined Founding Fathers could embrace feminists like my pal Liz, a civil rights and peace activist since the 1960s. Liz reminded me that the First Amendment grants five freedoms, including “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” But she went a step further. “We have to respect our enemies,” said Liz, an admirer of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. “Otherwise, it’s just a mob.”

Respect requires empathy. To cultivate gentleness, I copied passages before bed, moving the language through my bloodstream like a prayer. Article I, Section 8 granted powers to Congress and shared similarities to the book of Genesis. Each line was a creation: post offices, a standard of weights and measures, the production of money and the ability to declare war and to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”

My jaw tightened as I thought of my new president’s executive orders. But as I spent more time with the Constitution, I thought its language modeled a level head for civil discourse. I was moved particularly by the 19th Amendment stating no one should be denied voting rights “on account of sex.” Ratified in 1920, the amendment and its gender-inclusive wording felt especially fresh.

“Copying the Constitution is different from reading it,” said my library buddy, Ana, an American citizen originally from Romania. “When you see a road from the plane, you don’t see the pebbles.”

Curious about the details, I traveled to Washington, D.C., specifically to visit founding documents at the National Archives. “Take a close look at the first page,” a guard told me as I approached the Constitution. “Can you see a mistake?” To my amazement, I found an omission, a line that had been scraped and possibly covered with candlewax. Then he pointed out a childish error on the fourth and final signature page—“Pensylvania” spelled with one “n”—scrawled out by Alexander Hamilton, the man whose name would launch a smash Broadway musical. I was in love.  

So was my father as I described my studies. Instead of arguing about Trump—an endless activity—we met up for a family vacation in Philadelphia, birthplace of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Infused with the Spirit of ‘76, we strolled through museums and chatted with costumed actors portraying Betsy Ross and Thomas Jefferson. At the National Constitution Center, we paused at a video of a naturalization ceremony. Like couples taking marriage vows, these brave new citizens pledged the Oath of Allegiance, swearing to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, “foreign and domestic.” When the camera zoomed in on individual faces, Dad and I stifled tears.

As a natural-born American, I took my freedoms for granted. But by copying my blessings each night with my right hand, I drew a pact with God—binding me to country, family and fellow patriots, however they voted.

Forty-five days into the Trump administration, I finished the last sentence of the 27th Amendment, the final law regarding congressional pay cycles. I was now a re-Framer with my own 43-page document. When stapled together end to end, the yellow legal paper trailed from my front door to my bed.

Then I started all over again with a fresh piece of paper, beginning with “We the People.”

[This article first appeared in the New York Observer.]

I’m Just Here For Savasana

“Final rest” can lend itself to macabre thoughts. Contrary to the cute T-shirt slogan, the pose is serious – even difficult. In Sanskrit, sava translates into corpse. When we practice savasana, we arrange our limbs in a funereal manner, sometimes with a bolster under the knees and a blanket beneath the head.

In America, we don’t like to talk about death, even though we see it each time we read about another shooting, another vigil. In less sensational terms, how many of us have lost jobs, family members ,or even a beloved restaurant that closed and gave way to Starbucks? These are all deaths, but in our culture, we don’t have a healthy collective way to process or celebrate them.

When I approached my 40s, I wanted more calm in how I approached change. The laugh lines around my mouth reminded me that my body was only a temporary structure for my infinite spirit. While my muscles loved to run and stretch, my soul — which was so big it frightened me — also needed tender care.

For my body, I began researching anatomical donation. Eventually, I donated it to a major hospital (I’m still using it right now), even going on a tour of the gross anatomy lab and attending cadaver memorials. In order to move forward, I wanted a better relationship with letting go.

To my surprise, med students often told me about unusual forces within the lab. Their beloved cadavers — spread open with bone saws — held secrets of scars and old surgeries that made them as real as any yia yia or abuela. Despite religious beliefs, many of these future doctors felt like the bodies watched them, not in a threatening way, but with the benign matter-of-factness of elderly aunts at a wedding.

In the memoir Body of Work, author Christine Montross, a doctor and poet, describes cutting off the face of Eve, the cadaver she shared with her fellow students, one of whom had a panic attack. “Despite the inertia of the dead,” Montross writes, “they actively affect us. Even now as the term winds to a close.”

In Thai medical schools, Montross notes, cadavers are especially holy because most citizens are Buddhist and therefore reluctant to intervene with reincarnation. Students refer to their bodies as “great teachers,” giving them ceremonies before and after dissection.

In a dance of intimacy unknown to most of us here in the West, Thai medical students memorize their donors’ names, forever walking with the dead in order to heal the living.

When we lie down for savasana, we are likewise communing with our ancestors. Corpse pose is not for the weak, a powerful conduit between space and time that is more than a slogan.

This article first appeared in YogaCity NYC.

The Year In (Dead) Bodies

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1900: Medicine - Anatomy - Musculoskeletal (locomotor) system - Muscles. Drawing. (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)

Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)

In my personal research on body donation, I encountered NPR reporter Fred Mogul at NYU School of Medicine’s most recent cadaver memorial in November. He was bugging the stage to collect touching speeches and songs sung by the Ketones, NYU’s medical school choir. I was representing The New York Observer for a 700-article, “The Kindest Cut.” My story centered around two second year students who lingered after the service to snack on bits of the remaining buffet. With me, they discussed the weirdness of dealing with disconnected hands and legs that looked like those of family members.

What impressed me was the admission that medical school was rewarding, but also really hard: “I never doubted that this was what I wanted to do,” said one of the future physicians. “I doubted that I was good enough to do it.”

Fred, meanwhile, had a longer-term project through NPR. He focused on a group of first year students and their relationship with donor Haig Manoukian, whom he met in a body bag on Table 4.

Haig was an Armenian-American whose parents fled the Turkish genocide of World War I. A musician, he played the oud and jammed with the New York Middle Eastern music scene before contracting prostate cancer. The choice to donate Haig’s body was his wife Michele’s. She considered many ways to remember Haig, who loved sharing his craft. Then she stumbled on body donation. “That pulled everything together for me,” she said. “I stopped crying. And I felt integrated. I felt like complete in some way. I just felt this is a real, this is the right decision.”

She said she hoped the students would make really good mistakes on him and feel all sorts of emotions, including humor.

“I didn’t want him to die, and I thought he’ll be alive in some way,” Michele said on NPR’s Only Human. “He won’t go into the dark. He’ll be in light. I didn’t care if it was fluorescent light. I wanted other people’s eyes on him. And I wanted their hands on him. I couldn’t let go. And so I thought, yeah, let’s do that. You know, it was selfish for me in a way, because I just wanted to think of him on 34 th Street. I didn’t want to think of him. I don’t know.”

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Fred Mogul’s wonderful reporting has been released in sections on NPR, “Every (Dead) Body Has A Story” and “A Guide to Donating Your Body To Science.”