SEASON 2: EPISODE 4
Meditator Kate Johnson explores the connection between car horns and anonymous comment sections.
ABOUT THE GUEST
Kate Johnson teaches classes and retreats integrating Buddhist meditation, somatics, social justice and creativity at the Rubin Museum in New York, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, the Kripalu Center and the Omega Institute. Kate works as a culture change consultant, partnering with organizations who are pursuing noble goals to achieve greater diversity and sustainability. She is also an utterly unprofessional dancer and performer who earned a BFA in Dance from The Alvin Ailey School/Fordham University and an MA in Performance Studies from NYU.
ABOUT THE HOST
Neil Goldberg is an artist in NYC who makes work that The New York Times has described as “tender, moving and sad but also deeply funny.” His work is in the permanent collection of MoMA, he’s a Guggenheim Fellow, and teaches at the Yale School of Art. More information at neilgoldberg.com.
ABOUT THE TITLE
SHE’S A TALKER was the name of Neil’s first video project. “One night in the early 90s I was combing my roommate’s cat and found myself saying the words ‘She’s a talker.’ I wondered how many other other gay men in NYC might be doing the exact same thing at that very moment. With that, I set out on a project in which I videotaped over 80 gay men in their living room all over NYC, combing their cats and saying ‘She’s a talker.’” A similar spirit of NYC-centric curiosity and absurdity animates the podcast.
This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund.
Producer: Devon Guinn
Creative Consultants: Aaron Dalton, Molly Donahue
Mixer: Andrew Litton
Visuals and Sounds: Joshua Graver
Theme Song: Jeff Hiller
Website: Itai Almor
Media: Justine Lee
Interns: Alara Degirmenci, Jonathan Jalbert, Jesse Kimotho
Thanks: Jennifer Callahan, Nick Rymer, Sue Simon, Maddy Sinnock
NEIL GOLDBERG: My favorite New York biking experience is going over the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn. There’s that long, gentle curve as you exit into Brooklyn, and you also don’t have to pedal because you’re …
KATE JOHNSON: Going down a hill.
NEIL: … going downhill.
KATE: I know what you’re talking about …
NEIL: I live for that.
KATE: … down to Jay Street.
NEIL: Yeah, exactly. And I also love that moment, especially at night, coming from Brooklyn into Manhattan on any of the bridges, and when you reach that midpoint where you can stop pedaling, you’re over the water, and you can basically just glide all the way back into Manhattan.
KATE: Yeah, from the peak, right?
KATE: Oh yeah, that is beautiful. Yes. I actually crashed my bike once on that because I was just having this peak moment as I was looking out at the water, then I hit the side and scraped my knee and hobbled the rest of the way.
NEIL: Hello. I’m Neil Goldberg and this is SHE’S A TALKER. Today, I’ll be talking to meditation teacher Kate Johnson. But first, here’s the premise of the podcast, and I like to say it’s better than it sounds. I’m a visual artist, and I have this collection of thousands of index cards on which I’ve been jotting down thoughts, observations, reflections for a good 20 years. They were originally meant just for me, maybe to hold onto something I wanted to remember, or maybe to use in a future art project. But in SHE’S A TALKER, I’m using them as prompts for conversations with some of my favorite New York artists, writers, performers, and beyond.
NEIL: These days, the cards often start as recordings I make into my phone here and there throughout the course of the day. Here are some recent ones: English. Double letters are okay, triple letters are too much. I’m kind of surprised Trump likes Sharpies. Have to get home to feed one animal to another animal.
NEIL: I’m so happy to have as my guest, Kate Johnson. Kate teaches classes and retreats that integrate Buddhist meditation, social justice work, and creative practice at places like the Rubin Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philly, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and the Kripalu Center, among others. She also describes herself as an utterly unprofessional dancer who earned an MA in performance studies from NYU. We talked in January at a recording studio at The New School near Union Square in New York City.
NEIL: I’m so happy to have Kate Johnson with me today on SHE’S A TALKER. Thank you, Kate, for being here.
KATE: Oh my gosh, thank you so much for having me.
NEIL: I want to start with a couple questions I ask everybody. The first question would be, what is the elevator pitch for what it is you do?
KATE: Oh my God. I am a mediation teacher and organizational consultant, and I often work at the intersections of spirituality, social justice, and creativity.
NEIL: Whoa. That is an elevator pitch.
NEIL: That absolutely is.
KATE: I pulled it together.
NEIL: I can really see how that triad could inform each other. Spirituality, social justice, and creativity, yes?
KATE: Yeah. I mean, I also feel like those are the things that I just like and am good at, so there’s not a whole lot else, I think, that’s for me in this world. I try to just make them go together whenever I can.
NEIL: Right. Oh, isn’t that what we’re all doing? Just make the things that we like go together. Do you have parents, grandparents who are still around?
KATE: Yeah. I have parents who are still around.
NEIL: What, let’s say, would your parents say to their friends when their friends ask what you do?
KATE: Oh. My mom would say that I’m a spiritual teacher, and my dad would say that I’m a writer.
NEIL: Oh, that’s interesting. What’s that split about?
KATE: Well, my dad was a writer. He was a journalist, and so I think that he always really supported my love of language and saw that part of me. Then my mother, recently she started getting really into meditation, so she practices twice a day, she comes to mediation retreats that I teach. I don’t know, I also feel like there are certain people in life where when you talk to them, your wisdom kind of comes out, and I think that my mom and I are that for each other.
NEIL: Oh, that’s wonderful.
KATE: So I see her as a spiritual teacher, too.
NEIL: Do you get nervous when she comes to a meditation retreat?
KATE: A little bit. I mean, partially because I kind of have an internal commitment, even when I’m in meditation spaces, to really be honest about the way that I hope that our spiritual practice can inform our political lives. So oftentimes that means talking about my experience as a black, mixed race woman, and I have a white mommy. And so part of, I think, what’s spiritual about our relationship is the willingness not to give up on each other as we have these conversations about what it means for me to be a black woman in America, what it’s like for her as a mother of black children, and the ways in which, as a white woman living in kind of a middle-upper class area of Chicago, the things that she doesn’t see or the attitudes she unconsciously picks up she didn’t mean to. And so I think it’s amazing. It’s also frustrating in some ways to be in this long-term relationship with this person where we’re not going to give up on each other because we have different views.
KATE: But just to go back to your question, I’ll often look out and be talking about experiences of racism, both within meditation centers and outside, and I’ll look out at her and just wonder, “What’s she thinking?” Does she feel bad that she couldn’t shield me from those experiences? Is she feeling like, “Is Kate making this up? I don’t know what she’s talking about.” So sometimes I’ll try to read her face, but most of the time I’m just happy she’s there and that she’s … I mean, she raised four children pretty much by herself, so I’m happy she has a little time to relax. We probably terrorized her.
NEIL: You mentioned not giving up on each other. I mean, that’s such an interesting way to put it.
KATE: Well, every family’s different, everyone’s relationship with their parents is different. A lot of the people that I interact with often in my social life, they have a relationship with their parents, and I think sometimes with the elder generation in general, where there’s a sense of … I don’t know, kind of objectifying them. Like we might have seen them once and then saw a mixed bag, as we all are, someone who in some ways has it together or is loving and in other ways maybe carries outdated notions of themselves or other people, or uses embarrassing language to describe a particular ethnic group. Then we just kind of … There’s this dulling of the perception that happens after that where we no longer are seeing that person, we’re seeing our memory projecting it out and then reacting to our own projections. And so-
NEIL: Oh my God. Story of my life.
KATE: So I think not giving up is being, in some ways, willing to allow each other the grace that is actually offered to all of life, which is that we’re all always changing and to be awake to each others’ evolving experience and to be willing to be honest about what our experience is and shape each other. I think that’s the other way in which I’ve seen friends give up on parents, is that they stop really telling the parents who they are. We fear we may not be accepted or parents just don’t understand, that kind of thing, and sometimes that’s true. Sometimes we have that fear and it’s confirmed, and that’s really hard. So it’s like you can’t have your whole sense of worth wrapped up in what a parent thinks, but also what if they couldn’t see us once and then one day they could? And we kept kind of showing up and allowing ourselves to be seen, if that’s not dangerous to who we are. I like to be surprised.
NEIL: Shall we go to these cards?
KATE: Cool, yeah. This is actually the part that I’m most excited about, so …
NEIL: All right, well. The first card I have is, “Patience always feels somehow wrong.”
KATE: The wrongness. I relate to the discomfort of patience. I think one of the blessings of Buddhist meditation training is it kind of gets drilled into your bones that just because something is uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I think to the point where it can even go a little too far and people can become scared of pleasure, and that’s also not the point. In the Buddhist tradition, the word that’s translated as patience is called khanti. It’s K-H-A-N-T-I and it’s one of the virtues, and so it’s not different than other traditions where patience is a virtue. We often translate it as patience, but it means something like forbearance, also.
KATE: So for me, when I learned patience as a child it was like holding on like hell until you get what you want, like, “If you’re good, then you can have this treat when you get home.” And so you just hold your little hands, you just sit on them and wait until finally, “Oh, I get what I want now that …” I have a sense of relief and the patience that is talked about in the Buddhist teachings, which I also relate with … and it’s a little bit of a perspective shift, but it’s like not just patience until I get what I want, but the patience that one has when we may never get what we want, or whether what we want is gone and will never return. The kind of patience that we have with our bodies as they get older and we go to do something that we used to do effortlessly. The suggestion, I guess, is that we can meet that experience with patience.
NEIL: Yeah, there’s so many different types of patience, too. For a long time, I supported myself in a day job that involved a mix of computer graphics and IT work. Working with people around computers brings up, for me, the deepest level of patience or challenges to patience.
KATE: Because they’re not going fast enough? Is that-
NEIL: You could take the keyboard and mouse out of their hands and just do it absolutely in two seconds, but it is important to develop that muscle memory of using the mouse and the keyboard and da da … going through the steps and having it be imprinted on your body in that way.
KATE: Yeah. I mean, we’re talking and I’m like, oh, so much of patience for me is about pace. It’s about I either want a task to go faster than it’s going, I would like time to go faster than it’s going, and the frustration that it’s actually not … It’s difficult. It’s difficult. I don’t know, would you say it’s wrong?
NEIL: That really segues, interestingly, into a card I have about honking. “People honking are not where they want to be.”
KATE: That’s deep. I mean, that’s really deep. Yeah, I mean, gosh, to just be able to make a noise and be like, “I’m here and I don’t want to be.”
NEIL: Right, exactly.
KATE: It makes me want to have a horn to just carry around and be like …
NEIL: Oh my God.
KATE: Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s like they don’t want to be here, but also, “I want someone to know that I’m here and I don’t want to be. I want to make that heard. I want to make that visible.” I can relate to that feeling.
NEIL: Oh my God, yeah. God, that horn would be on frequent blast in my life.
KATE: Yeah, yeah. Or when you see a child have a tantrum and it’s just like, that’s them honking their horn being like, “Something is not right.”
NEIL: Right, right, right. That’s so true. Oh my God, the horn is metaphor. But I bike a lot, and I was stopped at a light where someone was honking the horn, and the biker next to me … I love the conversations you’ll have occasionally at a stoplight with someone else in the bike lane. He said, “Car horns should be just as loud inside the car as outside.”
KATE: Yeah, that’s a cool idea. I mean, I can’t imagine any car manufacturer picking that up, but you know.
NEIL: I know, right. I think that’s also a connection between honking and vulnerability. As a bicyclist, do you ever kind of make that connection? I often feel like when people are honking at me, they’re actually expressing a fear of hurting me.
KATE: Oh, oh.
NEIL: Have you ever had that, or …
KATE: Yeah. I guess it can be like that the same way a parent will yank a kid, like, “Why’d you do …” When they’re doing something that they feel is dangerous. Yeah, I think the feeling of being in this giant metal thing that’s hurling through space that could totally kill somebody is really kind of jarring.
KATE: I mean, I love that you’re giving people the benefit of the doubt like that, like, I startled them and they don’t want to hurt me. I think that’s a wonderful attitude to take. I didn’t often think that. I often felt like there was so much protection or something that, I don’t know, they felt they could do whatever they wanted. I often would pull up next to a car at a stop light and look over and when the person looked at me, the impression that I had is that they forgot that they could be seen inside this compartment.
NEIL: Oh, right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
KATE: So it almost is like an anonymous comment section or something where they can say whatever they want with their … and then no one has to know it was them that trolled this nice biker.
NEIL: Honking is like the anonymous comment section. That’s fucking brilliant. The card says, “Childish laughter at Buddhist lecture.” You know what I’m talking about? Any kind of spiritual lecture … First of all, the teacher will often embrace a kind of, “The bird doesn’t worry about da, da, da.” You know, say something kind of like that.
KATE: Oh God. Yeah.
NEIL: And then in turn, the audience will laugh but it’s not funny, and it’s a childish kind of laughter.
KATE: I was talking with a friend about this recently because we were talking about the kinds of Dharma talks or spiritual teachings that become ritualized to the point that this person is telling a story that they have actually told many, many times. You’ve heard it on a podcast and you’ve heard them say it at last year’s retreat and they’re telling the same story and there’s the same punchline and you laugh again and it’s like, “Why?” We were wondering if it’s less about novelty and more about familiarity, kind of like there’s a sense of, “Oh, I know what’s coming and it’s comforting to me and I laugh because I know what to do here.”
NEIL: I hear that. It’s why we like sitcoms. You know the joke’s about to come … certain types of sitcoms.
KATE: Right. And it also depends on what’s coming before it because sometimes I think that Dharma talks can also bring up heavy stuff, like death and aging and heartbreak of various kinds. And so it builds up a kind of energy that can actually be difficult for us to contain, and so there’s this sense of it’s powerful, but it’s almost uncomfortable because it’s building up this energy, then wanting it to release in some way. So even if the joke is bad, just being excited that there’s a release valve that you can pull.
NEIL: Next card. “How I sometimes keep my shoelaces untied as a kind of mindfulness reminder.” I’m aware that my shoelaces are untied as I’m walking. They become untied, it’s not like I purposely don’t tie them. They become untied and I kind of hold off on tying them just as a way to be like, “Got to walk mindfully.”
KATE: Oh wow. What effect does it have, or how does it work? Does it help your mindfulness?
NEIL: Absolutely because it’s like you don’t want to trip. It then becomes a walking meditation. But also, it really makes you aware of how many people will tell you, “Hey, your shoelace is untied.” Which is why New York is great.
KATE: I was thinking about that. I was like, “Oh my God, do you know what you’re doing to people?
NEIL: Right, exactly.
KATE: For me, I get so scared when I see someone with their shoelace untied. I’m like, “You’re going to fall.” But I kind of love that. I also think it’s … Walking meditation can be kind of boring. I mean, all meditation can be kind of boring, so it’s like …
NEIL: Right, exactly.
KATE: … juicing it up a little bit, living on the edge, walking meditation. I like it.
NEIL: Because you could trip, as mindful as you’re trying to be.
KATE: Right. The wind blows a different way, it swings that little lace underneath you’re other foot, and then you’re just-
NEIL: Exactly, you’re down.
KATE: Yeah. But I’m glad you haven’t fallen yet. I think that’s cool.
NEIL: May you not fall.
KATE: May you ever be upright.
NEIL: Do you have any little tricks like that, like meditation hacks?
KATE: Yeah. I mean, I think Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition is really amazing for this kind of thing because they talk about mindfulness bells and the way that you can … And bell is a metaphor, it’s something that makes you remember, and so you just … It can be a bell, like every time your phone rings, you take a deep breath, feeling your feet on the ground before you pick it up. Or every time you touch a doorknob, you allow yourself to begin again, whatever that means. There’s ways to do that.
NEIL: Oh, I love that.
KATE: I think for me now, a lot of my mindfulness bells are internal. I’ll actually notice a disturbance in the field. I’ll notice that my chest tightened up a little bit or my belly kind of swerved, or I feel something inside and use this moment to kind of actually pause and notice what happened there, and if necessary, to care of it. I’m big into letting my body talk to me these days as a practice, after having really ignored it for many, many, many years. I’m like-
NEIL: As a dancer, or in dance work? Or just as a human being, or …
KATE: Yeah, definitely in dance work, although … I was going to say, although I don’t know if it started there. I might have … But in dance for sure, there were ways of moving my body that didn’t feel good, but then I thought, “Well, this is what the choreographer wants, so I’m going to do it.” There’s an element of dance training that is about don’t pay attention to what you’re feeling and just get it done, and that is capitalism. That’s not-
NEIL: Dance is capitalism. That is hilarious, oh my God.
KATE: I think, right? It’s like what matters is production and not necessarily your human feelings and needs, and so as humble as it is, actually paying attention to what your body is feeling and being willing to attend to that … at least with your attention, if not with your actions … is kind of this radical anti-capitalist act.
NEIL: I love it.
KATE: For some reason, from a early age I was really drawn to these European concert dance forms. I was really into ballet and then I was really into Martha Graham technique and some parts of the Horton technique, which I ended up in when I went to The Ailey School. They’re not actually meant for everybody …
NEIL: Yeah, everybody.
KATE: … and I’m not even sure if they’re meant for anybody. It’s kind of this idealized form that we’re all … So anyway, I don’t know if feeling or feeling good is always a part of dance for the dancer. I think sometimes it’s helping other people feel something. But I don’t think that’s what dance has to be and I don’t think it’s what it is at it’s best, but I think somehow that’s the kind of dance that I end up doing most of the time.
NEIL: That’s an interesting way of thinking of it. It’s almost like this Christlike thing of, “It doesn’t feel good for me, but it makes someone else feel good.”
KATE: Feel amazing.
NEIL: Right, yeah. “I could imagine thinking as I’m dying, ‘Here we go again.'”
KATE: Where did this come from?
NEIL: I just had the idea it could have a sort of familiarity to it, in the same way that falling asleep has a familiarity to it or something. I mean, of course, the beauty of it is I’ll know but I won’t be able to have a followup podcast episode about it. I think.
KATE: You’ll just have to send us a sign or something.
NEIL: Yeah. And it’s not even for me about necessarily believing in reincarnation, which I don’t know if I believe in. But I don’t think beyond that.
KATE: The thought that I had just now was like, I hope I’m familiar enough with death by the time I experience it myself that I can think, “Oh, this is normal, this is natural, this is the way of all things,” instead of, “Oh, why is this happening to me?” Which, I think, from talking to people who volunteer in hospice and stuff, that can be the thought. Like, “Why me, doctor? Why me?” And it’s like, “Well, you’re 90.”
NEIL: “Why not you?”
KATE: But yeah, so there’s a lot of Buddhist practices that are preparations for death and dying, and some of them are visualizations, some of them are reminders. There’s one that’s, “I am of the nature to grow old. I am of the nature to become sick. I am of the nature to die. Everything and everyone I love will be taken from me and I am the owner of my karma, it’s my only true inheritance.”
KATE: I mean, I think that one of the things that make Buddhism a hard sell is that it can feel like a downer to be like, “Okay, we want to talk about suffering. We’re going to talk about impermanent.” The paradox is that somehow being in touch with those things lends a sense of, “Oh, I’m actually alive now and this is what life is,” and maybe even a sense of urgency around understanding, “This will not always be the case, so I don’t just have forever to bumble along until I finally decide I’m going to do the thing that I need to do.” And that leads to a kind of freedom and happiness that denial of death and denial that things are changing actually … We will never win that game.
NEIL: Right, oh wow. Yeah.
KATE: We will never succeed. This is a setup, actually, but it’s a setup that you can buy a lot of products and goods on the way to realizing that’s possible. So it’s good for the economy, but it’s not necessarily good for our spirits.
NEIL: Capitalism again. What’s a bad X you’d take over a good Y?
KATE: A bad X I’d take over a good Y. So first thought is a bad day sober I’d take over a good day drunk.
NEIL: Are you in recovery, can I ask?
KATE: Yeah. Almost nine years, which means I was definitely meditating before I got sober. I was trying to become less attached to wine without actually having to stop drinking wine. But that didn’t work out as well and I think that the meditation practice helped me to get real enough with myself to be like, “Oh, this is actually never going to work out. No matter how I dress it up or dress it down, it’s never going to work out for me.” Yeah.
NEIL: What is it that keeps you going?
KATE: Oh man. I think it changes. A couple of answers came to as I was letting your question resonate, and one is a sensory sense of smell kind of thing, like being able to smell a different future that’s … I think it’s something … What keeps me going feels like it’s something in a future that is looking back or calling to me from a future moment, saying, “You really want to get here, actually. Keep going. I love you. Keep going. You’re doing great.”
NEIL: And that connects to smell for you?
KATE: Yeah, it’s like a whiff. Having a whiff of something that is just kind of like cooking. I genuinely want to see what’s going to happen. Like, “What’s going to happen today?” It’s very close to anxiety, but it’s not anxiety. I know that there is kind of a way that anxiety can get people up in the morning for momentum, and I had that experience also, and this one is just a half-step back from that and it feels a little bit more sustainable for my system just to be like, “I wonder what’s going to happen?”
NEIL: That seems like a beautiful place to end it. Kate Johnson, thank you so much for being on SHE’S A TALKER.
KATE: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me. It’s been awesome.
NEIL: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of SHE’S A TALKER. Before we get to the credits, there were some listener responses to cards that I’d love to share. It’s a new thing we’re doing in season two.
NEIL: In my conversation with artist and baker Andy Hawkes, we talked about the card, “Leftovers as a kind of embodied memory.” In response, Lex Brown wrote, “More than memory, leftovers make me think of the seemingly endless future of packing my lunch in middle and high school. I thought it would never end. Gladware, monotonous future food, foggy plastic lids, leftovers for school night dinner or for lunch the next day.” John Pilson wrote, “I feel like the leftover with teeth marks deserves its own category, probably a name other than leftovers. Maybe evidence?” And finally, [Com and See 00:27:59] wrote, “One of my uncles in Hong Kong as a personal rule never keeps leftovers, even if he’s making lobster or crab or abalone or delicious meats. It’s so ruthlessly unsentimental, it breaks my heart every time I eat at his table.”
NEIL: Thanks to everyone who wrote in. I loved all the responses. If you have something you’d like to share about a card on the podcast, email us or send us a voice memo at firstname.lastname@example.org or message us on Instagram @shesatalker. And also, as always, we’d love it if you’d rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or share this episode with a friend.
NEIL: This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund. Devin Guinn produced this episode. Molly Donahue and Aaron Dalton are our consulting producers. Justine Lee handles social media. Our interns are Alara Degirmenci, Jonathan Jalbert, and Jesse Kimotho. Our card flip beats come from Josh Graver, and my husband, Jeff Hiller, sings the theme song you’re about to hear. Thanks to all of them and to my guest, Kate Johnson, and to you for listening.
Jeff Hiller: (singing