Jennifer Lighty

Jennifer Lighty

Jennifer Lighty

Jen, you talk about your life before you met your mentor 14 years ago. Can you tell us a little bit about that? What moved you to take a new path? Was it a gradual change or was there one particular moment when something clicked with you?

Before I met my mentor, a healer named Maria DeMarco, I was on a very destructive path, abusing myself with alcohol, drugs and food. I was traumatized from childhood sexual abuse and sought out abusive situations as an adult, constantly putting myself in risky situations  with men that included being physically abused. I cycled in and out of extreme depression. If I was not really depressed, then I was just down. Most of my thoughts were negative and I didn’t have faith in anything or believe that life was worth living. I wasn’t exactly a sleepwalker, because I was aware of how bad things were, but I was floundering around in my own pain and unaware there was any way out of it. I believe there is a good chance I would have killed myself if I hadn’t changed course.

I met Maria a few days after the bombing of the World Trade Center at a ceremonial fire she was called to hold on Block Island, where she was visiting at the time. She spoke of thanking the souls of the people who had died in the planes and in the towers, including those of the attackers, saying that they had chosen to sacrifice themselves in order to awaken humanity. It was the first exposure I had to the idea that the soul has an agenda that is often not what a person would seek out for themselves because the ego is so invested in the body’s survival. It was a revolutionary moment that has stayed with me since. It was the first shift that opened me up to the possibility that we are never truly victims, that our soul chooses some situations for us because that is how we need to grow. Sometimes this growth will involve a sacrifice as great as death or in being the perpetrator of a crime for which we will be vilified, like the terrorists who perpetrated the World Trade Center bombing.

The big moment for me came a year into working with Maria. I was still drinking, still depressed, but the work with her was opening me up intellectually and energetically. I was still depressed and still felt an overwhelming unwillingness to be in my body that led to suicidal thoughts. One day driving down the road I was thinking “I just want out.” As I thought this, a deer dashed in front of my car. I saw another in the rearview window crossing the road behind me. I narrowly missed the one in front. They both disappeared into the graveyard to my left. I could have crashed into her, injuring, possibly killing, her or myself. I knew when I missed her that I had chosen to live on a soul level. I quit drinking and began the work of recovering my joy and seeking to fulfill my soul’s purpose at that moment.

When it comes to your mentoring practice, is there a common theme that you find in the clients that come to you for help?

I find that people are coming to me who want to learn how to connect with the natural and spirit world through their creativity. I began working with poets, but the work has been expanding to include many others who I am calling creative seekers-people who are looking for a different way to relate to themselves and our planet.

When you work with students, in your 30-Day Poetry Challenge for example, what advice do you give them to keep that inner critic quiet long enough for them to feel comfortable getting that first draft down on paper? 

I really encourage people to connect with their body’s wisdom. In a concrete way, this involves not just reading what they’ve written aloud, but composing aloud. It is easy to get disembodied as a writer and imitate the voices we have in our heads as readers. I encourage people to walk, practice yoga, dance–all of these physical activities will help free the voice and quiet the inner critic. One other thing I do is tell people to write with their non-dominant hand. I learned this from the poet Marie Howe. It’s a wonderful way to bypass the intellect and go straight into the imaginal realms of intuition and body-knowledge that is difficult to access when we are trapped in our heads.

I understand the Medicine Wheel is a walking practice. How can we novices begin to incorporate that in our every day lives?

A simple way is to orient yourself according to the directions within the places you inhabit the most. Your home, your office, etc. For instance, do you where north is? Is there a lake to the south of you? What direction is the wind coming from? I lived many years on Block Island where the old timers knew out of necessity what a northeast wind would bring versus a southwesterly breeze. It was just a part of daily conversation to be aware of the weather, so I was lucky to have this early influence.

What advice would you give to the woman who may suddenly find herself with an empty-nest, a job she’s unhappy with and no idea what to do next?

My advice would be to cultivate the practice of surrender. It is easy to intellectualize your circumstances by looking Buddhaat them through the lens of soul needs versus ego desires, but I found once I started to get really deep into the process of spiritual growth that I had to go through the emotional work required to open my heart that didn’t necessarily go along with the understanding that I was co-creating my circumstances with my soul in order to evolve. If you can surrender to feeling your emotions you will find that you will be more present with yourself and the moment. This will decrease anxiety that keeps us locked into a future scenario and help us receive guidance from a higher power as to what to do next. Again, I find that moving my body helps. Yoga has been invaluable for me and I recently underwent a course of underwater rebirthing sessions through a practice called janzu this past winter in Mexico that opened me up to a whole new level of self-acceptance of where I was. Before janzu, I was actually in yet another cycle of anxiety about where to go and what to do next. I was able to let go of that and opportunities presented themselves to me that I could never imagined before I allowed myself to surrender and trust.

What does your typical day look like?

In the past year I have made the shift to self-employment, so my typical day varies a good bit because I am not a person who gravitates toward routines. However, more days than not I find myself beginning the day with yoga, even just practicing a few sun salutations before I engage with others helps. I have had a long journey with physical illness, so I make a point of caring for my body with nourishing drink and food. I like to sip a cup of warm water and lemon, then drink some green tea. Then I begin reading and writing, corresponding with students and colleagues. In the late afternoon I usually get outside. For the past 6 months I was in Mexico, so I went to the beach. Now I am back in New England where this is not yet possible, so I go for a walk! I cook myself a nourishing meal, then sometimes write again or read, watch a movie. I spend most of my time alone. I enjoy it. It has taken me a long time to enjoy my own company and not constantly be seeking love and approval outside myself, so now I really revel in this time alone.

What’s next for you?

I have a lot of projects going right now! I have a chapbook coming out from Finishing Line Press. It’s called “Breaking Up With The Moon.” I’m not sure yet of the publication date. I am working on a full length poetry collection and on a book based on my 30 Day Poetry Challenge. I am currently without a fixed address and see a lot more travel in my future!

Jennifer Lighty is an award-winning poet and teacher whose work has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets, and been published in The Beloit Poetry Journal, Verse Daily,  Thrush Poetry Journal, Earthlines, The Island Review, The North American Review, Poet Lore, Off The Coast, Room, Bamboo Ridge and many other journals. In 2103, she received a grant from The Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.  The focus of her work is to help creators develop more intimate connections with themselves and Earth. Her work is grounded in permaculture, deep ecology, and archetypal psychology. She is committed to helping others transform their wounds into gifts that can serve the world. Visit her online at walkingthemedicinewheel.com.

Jenny Hill

Jenny Hill

Jenny Hill

Jenny, many of us played with hoola hoops when we were younger. How old were you when you first started out? What was it about hooping that kept you taking it to the next level?

It’s funny, but I don’t remember hula hooping at all as a child. We grew up in the woods, and our closest neighbors were about a mile or so away, so my sister and I did a lot of creative things. We created circuses, made up games in the woods, and once I tried making a pop up restaurant in my bedroom where I made my parents pay for food they had already purchased! I’m sure there was a hoop around as part of one of our circuses, but I really don’t remember playing with it as it was intended. I was 39 years old when I first picked up a hoop and was determined to keep it spinning. My sister introduced me to it by bringing a hoop making kit with her the weekend she visited for my wedding. There are a number of different things that have kept me engaged and excited about hooping. At first it was just sheer determination and the old competitive spirit of sisterhood. My sister could hoop beautifully. Why couldn’t I keep it going? I spent days out in my backyard, practicing. Eventually something clicked and my body said, “Yep. This is it.” I spent years up in my head. It felt really good to have my body speak for a change. I was always the awkward kid growing up – the one that was picked last for the team in gym class, so suddenly having a creative outlet that was also athletic and made me feel graceful instead of clumsy has kept me engaged. One of the things that continues to keep me going with hooping is the playful aspect of it. It’s a toy! So if I make a “mistake” I turn it into a new move, or I laugh it off and continue. There have been a lot of lessons with hooping.

We’ve been hearing a lot about “flow” recently when it comes to sports and the arts. It seems to me that your hooping is a great example of flow – total focus and being in the moment. Do you agree? Do you get the same feeling from your writing?

Mmm, yes, flow. I think the word gets used in a number of different ways. For me there’s the flow of linking moves together with hooping and generating a personal style. There’s a lot of talk about flow in the hooping community. Hoopers who have learned the basics and want to level up sometimes get uptight about “finding flow,” because they feel like they aren’t skilling up quickly enough. Flow happens in a sort of quiet way, I think. It’s subtle. You keep practicing at a thing you’re passionate about (writing, hooping, cooking), and suddenly and without much notice you have developed a style. My husband talks a lot about Mise en Place. It’s a cooking term that means you have all your ingredients ready and are capable of putting together a delicious meal. I think this applies to most art. Having enough technique and craft to develop style.

Jenny Hill

Jenny Hill

Then there’s the kind of flow that happens where you are focused and in the moment, which you mentioned. That type of flow, to me, is a sort of meditative state. There are moments of this for me with hooping, especially when I am alone. I don’t feel that kind of flow while I’m teaching, or performing, or when I’m working on some off-body four hoop move. Once I’ve figured out the move and can incorporate it into the other type of flow, well then I might reach that sort of nirvana “brain shutoff”. It’s interesting now that I think of it how the two types of flow work together. It’s hard to get the meditative state of flow while you’re learning to master waist hooping, but once you get it, the brain chatter stops, and it’s a blissful place to be.

What is your typical daily routine? Do you practicing hooping every day? Are you an early-riser writer?

I’m up at 5:30, and I write for an hour. I’ve kept journals for years. If I’m working on a poem that usually happens in the morning as well. I read after that for a bit, usually until 7 a.m. Hoop practice during the spring, summer, and early fall happens in the morning as well, usually after I answer emails and make a list for the day. I spend at least an hour in practice, and it’s usually at the local park. I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the neighborhood this way. When the winter months hit, I practice indoors.

Your life seems to be full of play and creativity. We’re learning that flow, play and creativity are important for our health as we age. What advice would you give someone who is stuck in a stressful job and busy schedule?

I had parents that encouraged creativity, and I think that made a big influence on how I live my life. My suggestion for anyone struggling with stress is to find a creative outlet that speaks to you and moonlight from your stressful job in discovery. Theatre bug? Go audition for a local theatre or offer your help backstage. Musical itch? Take lessons. Everyone has busy schedules and the key is making time for that moonlighting. It doesn’t have to be a lot. An hour a day, or a half hour if you’re really crunched. I think anything that you’re curious about is a good place to start.

Hooping has had a lot of benefits for me, some of them being an increased spatial awareness, better eye/hand coordination, an increase in self-esteem, a boost in happiness, and then all the physical bonuses too. I’m stronger now at 45 than I was at 17. I hope to keep this up for as long as I can! Creativity is good for the brain – your brain develops new neural pathways as you skill up in an art form. This is super-beneficial as you age. I just finished teacher training with the Center for Creative Aging. There are a lot of studies that show that play and creativity have positive effects on health and well being.

You’re a teacher also. Can you tell us about one or two of your most rewarding teaching experiences?

It’s endlessly rewarding. There have been many moments of discovery and magic. I once took a group of 4th grade students outside so we could focus on the sense of sound, and they closed their eyes as I read a poem about snow. It was October. When they opened their eyes, it was snowing. They begged me to read again so they’d get a snow day! There was a teenage boy who slept through class but stayed awake when I visited to write a poem about his sister. It was like he was waiting for me to arrive so he could have the permission to write it. There was a school board meeting I attended with high school students. All those men in suits were so intimidating! They held all the cards, you know? They made all the decisions. One of the students read a poem for them called “Bomb in my Bookbag.” The “bomb” was her bible. I’ll never forget her bravery. I think every moment someone puts their trust in me to share their thoughts, or to try out a hoop, or share a life story, is rewarding. Living is rewarding. Getting to know other people is one of the best things in life, in my opinion. Students are always teaching me new things.

What’s next for you? Do you have another creative project in the works?

There’s always something going on around here. There are a string of performances I’m giving in the next couple of months, so I’m rehearsing a lot. I’ve finally committed to taking an improv class with the Philadelphia Improv Theater, and I’m excited about how what I learn there will inform the other things I do. I’m teaching a Hoop Revolution class at a local yoga studio – a quieter, slower introduction to hooping, and a Hoop Yourself Fabulous series that starts next week, which is a higher energy hoop class. In the evenings, since it’s hockey season, I will be writing. One of the things I love about the later fall is that things slow down a bit and I have time to reflect on what I’ve done and where and how creative ideas overlap. Hooping and poetry do overlap, and that’s a combination that has been fascinating to me for a few years. The most interesting exploration to me so far was a group hoop/theatre performance I created called, “O, Jabberwocky.” I’m working on developing a hooping and literacy curriculum that I can take to schools. That’s next. My lists are long, and time is of the essence!

Jenny Hill is a certified hoop fitness and dance instructor as well as a poet, actor and arts educator. Visit her online at Acts of Jennius and be sure to follow her on Facebook!