Listen to “Inhabiting Your Body and Your Wildness” with Dr. Amber Gray on The Unveil Podcast.
“Being in Body” Wise Women Rising 2022 Interview
“Cross Cultural Dance/Movement Therapy” on The Creative Psychotherapist Podcast
Listen to “Cross Cultural Dance/Movement Therapy” with Dr. Amber Gray on The Creative Psychotherapist podcast.
Dance Therapy Today: An Overview of the Profession and Its Practice Around the World
Published in Creative Arts in Education and Therapy – Eastern and Western Perspectives – Vol. 7, Issue 2, December 2021.
The Nishant Garg Show
Listen to Amber on The Nishant Garg Show:
Somatic Expeditions Interview
Click here to listen to the interview with Dr. Amber Elizabeth Gray.
Voices of Continuum
Amber is interviewed about Continuum, sacred lineage and wild spaces by her dear friend and Continuum colleague, Sylvain Meret.
Interview on #ORadio
Ostrolenk speaks with Dr. Amber Elizabeth Lynn Gray, an award winning dance/movement therapist and a somatic/human rights psychotherapist. Dr. Gray has worked for many years with people who have survived human rights abuses, war, and torture. Dr. Gray details how various educational and career experiences, and ultimately her time in Rwanda, drove her decision to pursue her degree in Somatic Psychology and Dance/Movement Therapy. Dr. Gray details her creation of Restorative Movement Psychotherapy, a clinical counterpart of the Poto Mitan (Haitian Creole for “Center Post/Place) Trauma and Resiliency framework, and how her experiences have evolved her view of the body politic and the ways in which we dehumanize the body. The intersection of spirituality and science, of humans and the Earth, and humans and animals are a few of the spaces in which Dr. Gray is increasing her work.
Finding Ground in the Swirl with Amber Gray // Passing 4 Normal Podcast
Amber shares about her Ground in the Swirl series on Sharon Weil’s Passing 4 Normal Podcast. Listen here.
Embodiment, Collaboration, and Social Trauma // Creative Therapy Umbrella Podcast
Partnership with local wildlife relief organizations in Australia
Santa Fe New Mexican article on TRI’s partnership with local wildlife relief organizations in Australia.
PHOTO CREDIT: Olivia Harlow/The New Mexican
Amber Gray & Trauma Work
The Dark Edges of Light
Sa nou pa we: the ever-present unseen. This concept in Vodou speaks to the existence of everything we see, and all that we do not see. It speaks to the potent balance of light and dark, day and night, bright and shadow. Early in the initiation process, the initiate will spend time contemplating a candles light, in a completely dark environment. Next time you see a lit candle look at the flame for awhile. The flame has a dark outline encircling the candlelight. The depth and hue of the dark edge changes and transmutes as the light flickers and dances. It disappears if the light goes out. This dark edge is where light and dark meet. It always exists, somewhere in the world, whether seen or unseen.
This juxtaposition of dark and light is core to the Haitian tradition known as Vodou. Initiation is an acknowledgement that we, as temporary incarnation in a physical, human form, are essentially spirit, and light, in a material body. That we only see the external human form is part of daily spiritual practice. Our internal world is a dark space where we are always incubating and gestating the emergent and the new. We are literally birthing that which will meet the light, in the depths of the dark.
Vodou recognizes the potent and life serving connection between human life and the natural world, as well as the connection between the physical (human and natural) world and the spirit dimension. Simply put, humans mirror nature and nature is perhaps the most clarifying mirror to reveal who we are as humans, individually and collectively. Sacred movements in Vodou mirror the movements of nature, for example, the circling of the sun and the moon, the rise and fall of the day and night is the same as the opening and closing of our eyes. In the words of anthropologist Maya Deren (1953), the first westerner to document Vodou ceremony:
If the earth is a sphere, then the abyss below the earth is also its heavens; and the difference between them is no more than time, the time of the earth’s turning. If the earth is a vast horizontal surface reflecting, invisibly, even for each man his own proper soul, then again, the abyss below the earth is also its heavens, and the difference between them is time, the time of an eye lifting and dropping. The sun-door and the tree-root are the same thing in the same place, seen now from below and now from above and named, by the seer, for the moment of seeing (1953).
Each breath represents our ongoing exchange, inner and outer, with the universe. Nature mirrors us as a meeting place of light and dark. Our own bodies, existing in the physical plane, and because of our ability to stand and move in the upright dimension, becomes the vertical axis, the Poto Mitan, or axis mundi, between heaven and earth. The Poto Mitan is the center-space that is always present in ceremony. The circular Peristyle is the ceremonial place, and the Poto Mitan penetrates its circle at the deep center. The Poto Mitan is not, however, limited to ceremony; it is ever present. Its center point, the intersection of the world of Spirit (vertical) and the world of humans (horizontal) is the crossroads (Kayfou in Kreyol), “the metaphor for the mirrors depths….” (Deren, M.,p. 35). We can actually encounter the crossroads at any moment; and it is through our ongoing and daily communication with our own Universal Soul (in Vodou tradition, our connection to the Spirit world) that we both as individuals and as a collective body are in dialogue with the world of “L’Invisib” (the invisibles, unseen, or Spirit).
Both the winter and summer solstice are an opportunity to reflect on these Vodou teachings. In these days of longer dark, the natural world and spiritual realms are gestating the light. The spirits will often show up in the movements of nature, and so our own physical and global movements reflect and mirror Spirit. This is how our Universal Soul expresses itself, through us. This is how we mirror Spirit, the unseen, and therefore—anything and everything that exists in darkness, even if only for a moment. Honoring the winter solstice through recognition of, and willing connection to, our own inner darkness, shadow self, propensity for dark (and even dark acts that may be perceived as wrong-doing), we honor our own capacity for growth and life through hibernation and gestation. Many people resist or resent the darkness; in Vodou, our ability to be in and with the darkness is the most potent time for self-development and growth. We may not see the external, but we are still present in another form, just as daylight on one side of the earth marks night-time in another. To celebrate and be with darkness is to honor the most potent creative space for cultivation of self purpose and knowledge. This knowledge is not book knowing; its Konysans—the deep knowing of the body based on eons of ancestors, our literal bio-chemical composition as shared with the natural world, and the reality of the human body as a temporary (individual) and eternal (collective) axis mundi to divine, mirror, and reflect the sacred.
Full Moon Rising & Dusk at Delaware Bay, Nelson, NZ
Deren, M. (1953). The divine horsemen: the living gods of Haiti. Kingston, N.Y.: McPherson & Company
Day of Gratitude Blog
Day of gratitude. Beneath and beyond the mythical tradition of a Thanksgiving meal (see my post last night regarding the untold history of this time), I welcome today as a day of reflection and gratitude.
My reflection begins with something that happened many times on my recent trip to Sri Lanka. Many hotels, restaurants and stores in Sri Lanka have a security person stationed there, to check your bags. I noticed that in large hotels, everyone had to pass trough the airport-like machines. In smaller stores and restaurants, my Sri Lankan friends would get checked by the person whose responsibility it was to check. I was not.
So, I offered. I went up to each grocery store security guard and asked if they needed to check my bag. Mostly, they peeked in, smiling and shrugging with what appeared to me to be a bit of embarrassment. I offered: “I am happy for you to check my bag.”
Flash back to a photo I posted in April, 2016, of me wearing a pink tank top I made that says “I just look legal” (re-posted here). At the time, I had recently learned of Sergio Romo’s infamous “I Just Look Illegal” t-shirt appearance (google it), which a friend told me was partially in response to a professional athlete of color who was beaten up due to racial profiling. I cannot find that story any more, and don’t know if that was the impetus for his t-shirt. Regardless, Romo is the son of Mexican immigrants, and his t-shirt stirred a lot of speculation and reflection on his meaning for wearing it.
Sergio’s story sparked my pink t-shirt, and this relates to what I am grateful for today:
Grateful, and conflicted.
I created the “I Just Look Legal” t-shirt and hoped that by posting it on FB, it would encourage other dominant culture people, with privilege, to make a similar t-shirt. That did not happen, perhaps due to my ignorance of social media and how to use it. Perhaps also, because its damn hard to own up to privilege and to willingly pick up part of the burden on creating equality and inclusion for all.
Why is the burden always on people of color to prove that they are “ok?” When are those of us (predominantly white in the USA) with privilege going to step out and take some risk and name that our skin color and privilege does not automatically mean we would never do something illegal; something that breaks the law? That you might want to check our bags, too? When are we going to pick up some of the weight of racism, fear, profiling and oppression and boldly name that white, or dominant culture, doesn’t always get to be excused. That assumptions about intelligence, integrity, and ability to succeed don’t belong more to us than to anyone else. We are all equally capable of violence, ignorance, and “illegality”. Many of us have done something “wrong”, and gotten away with it, because we look “ok.”
I am grateful for the privileges I have had that have shown me this world. Made it easy for me to move freely, to stay safe, to be included. And I am conflicted that I carry that privilege because we with privilege are not all doing enough to minimize the power differential it creates. That the story of a first meal between would be colonizers and genociders, and the people native to this land, is still dominant history is proof of this. Even if that first meal was a happy occasion, the “ever after” did not go so well for Native Americans.
My Thanksgiving prayer: That everyone with power use that power to pick up a piece of the burden of equality and inclusion; carry it, wear it, and name it, out loud.
Amber Elizabeth Gray on Continuum & the Creativity of Health
From Darfur, Kosovo and Haiti to her clinic in New Mexico, Amber Elizabeth Gray has become a human rights psychotherapist, merging dance therapy and Continuum in her recovery work with refugees. Produced by Watermark Arts for the “Continuum & Creativity of Health” interview series.
“Creative Arts Therapies with Refugees”
Amber’s chapter “Creative Arts Therapies with Refugees” is in Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Interdisciplinary and Collaborative Perspectives, edited by S. M. Berthold and K. R. Libal.
You can find the book here.
“Body as Voice: Restorative Dance/Movement Psychotherapy with Survivors of Relational Trauma”
Amber’s chapter “Body as Voice: Restorative Dance/Movement Psychotherapy with Survivors of Relational Trauma” is in The Routledge International Handbook of Embodied Perspectives in Psychotherapy.
You can find a copy here.
Amber on “The Trauma Therapist”
Listen to this podcast here.
“Roots, Rhythm, Reciprocity: Polyvagal informed Dance Movement Therapy for Survivors of Trauma”
Amber is one of the featured clinicians who writes about her polyvagal-informed movement therapy in Dr. Stephen Porges’ latest book.
You can find the book here.
Survivors of Torture Create Dances of Freedom
“Mind Your Body” Episode ft. Amber Gray
Let’s dig into the science behind dance/movement therapy as a highly effective & suitable treatment choice for trauma survivors. In this episode, Amber Gray talks about her collaborative work with “Distinguished University Scientist” Stephen Porges, who discovered the Polyvagal Theory.
Publication in “Currents”, the BMCA Journal
Amber’s publication “Dancing the Wild Home”, is in the 2018 edition of Currents, the BMCA Journal.
Amber’s speech makes the news
Amber’s speech at Senator Heinrich’s Unite Event in Albuquerque makes the news.
Amber on “The Embodiment Podcast”
Listen to Amber on The Embodiment Podcast.
Experienced dance movement and trauma therapist Amber joins Mark to discuss humanitarian work, polyvagal theory, state sharing, self compassion and self care when you work with trauma, the new trauma rock stars, humour, and not wearing kid gloves. We also discuss simply “what works” in trauma, and offer practical trauma-related tips for any embodiment professional.
“Polyvagal-informed Dance Movement Therapy with Children who Shut Down”
Amber’s chapter, co-authored with Dr. Stephen Porges, “Polyvagal-informed Dance Movement Therapy with Children who Shut Down”.
You can find the book here.
Polyvagal-Informed Dance/Movement Therapy for Trauma: A Global Perspective
Click here to read Amber’s publication on Polyvagal Informed Dance/Movement Therapy.
Amber Gray Presentation At The United Nations
The sixty-first session of the Commission on the Status of Women took place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, from 13 to 24 March 2017. Representatives of Member States, UN entities, and ECOSOC-accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from all regions of the world attended the session. The themes of this years session were:
- Priority Theme: Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work
- Review Theme: Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls (agreed conclusions of the fifty-eighth session)
- Emerging Issue/Focus Area: The empowerment of indigenous women
Amber Gray, Restorative Resources Director, was a presenter at the Forum. Amber co-presented with colleagues from The University of New Mexico, The Turkish House, and Lutheran Family Services. Amber’s presentation focused on a framework LFS piloted to provide group therapy to Afghan women, who are recently arrived refugees, using a public/mental health and creative arts therapy approach. This group fosters a restored sense of belonging through connection, empowerment, and engagement with meaningful activities.
The framework is being replicated with women from Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo this year. Unlike many group therapy approaches, this framework utilizes a public health approach so the facilitators and the women can co-create the group content and process. The framework is based on Amber’s Restorative Movement Psychotherapy, a mindfulness, somatic and arts based approach to working with refugee and war trauma; survivors of torture; and survivors of interpersonal trauma in cross cultural contexts. Participants attending the Forum from Mozambique and Kurdistan expressed an interest in similar programs, and Restorative Resources is currently co-seeking funds for the Kurdistan program. We are conducting research on impact on a sense of belonging, for the second year.
Meeting Emilie Conrad and discovering Continuum Movement
Amber shares her experience of meeting Emilie Conrad and discovering Continuum Movement.
Watch now on YouTube.
A Brief Response To Donald Trump
Dear Donald Trump,
You are definitely not my President, because you single-handedly just broke hearts, separated families indefinitely, shattered spirits, and undermined the values that truly once made America great. Those values of inclusivity, hospitality, and humanitarianism are omitted from this action. I spent yesterday in my refugee clinic, counseling survivors of human rights abuses from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. This is the work I have done for twenty years.
The sense of relative safety that refugees arriving to the community of the United States have always felt is now shattered. The place we, as a nation, once held in the world—of sanctuary, of acceptance, of pragmatic humanitarian compassion and action, of equality and liberty for all—is eroded.
I would love to know what you suggest I tell the woman I counseled yesterday; who was tortured and raped by Isis in two different countries, and who had to flee with her two young children, to save her own life, and leave her husband and one child behind? She has been waiting to re-unify with her beloved family; she needs her husbands support to raise their children because she suffers from her history of exposure to war, violence, and abuse. She is only one of the many survivors of gross human rights violations I counsel. Is he going to be able to join his family? Who is supposed to tend to her children when she has to go to work, and make minimum wage, to support them? I invite you to sit with my my clients and listen to them. I invite you to answer their questions. I invite you to represent humanity, and not fear.
This action is shamefully un-American, and so are you.
Podcast: A Tool Kit for Post Election Distress Syndrome with Amber Gray
Have you felt immobilized by the results of this presidential election? Shut down? Off-balance? Somatic psychologist, Amber Gray, talks with Sharon Weil about how terror and fear affect the body, creating either a shutting down response or an impulse towards fight or flight action. She provides essential and helpful insight and tools for finding calm, restoration, and a return to mobility and social engagement after difficult events. These tools apply to any stressful, shocking, or life-altering change. Listen and find comfort in her words.
We are the Movement: Continuum Movement as Somatic Psychotherapy
Read Amber’s publication on Continuum Movement, Somatic Psychotherapy and Trauma in Somatic Psychotherapy Today.
Dancing With Whales
Tonga, August–September, 2016
There is no word for problem in Tonga. I learned this from the spotter on the boat that took us out, daily, to swim with whales. Anything that arises, troubles, distresses, or hurts, has a solution. Or, with time and perspective, it will ease.
After 11 days in Haa’pai, facilitating “Dancing the Wild Home”, a Continuum Movement and Whale Encounter Depths Retreat, and being with the humpback whales almost daily, I believe in this ease. So much of what causes me to stress or distress, can shift when my perception and perspective shift. This is not always easy, but—it’s possible. Whale encounters have shown me that anything is possible.
How We Meet The World
I awake an hour before I am usually comfortable getting up, and am drawn to the edge of sea and land, where I also see the edge of sky and sea. It’s 6 am. The sun initially edges the sky with fringes of pale pink light, and then golden-orange swirls of sky give way to the first blue of morning. Sunsets are equally colorful, sometimes bold as orange light infuses the clouds with fire, or gentle as pale lavender and rose tints the clouds like a perfume.
A whale breaches, splashing so big it catches all of my sight. It blows a fountain of morning salt water. As I ponder the horizon, I see five more breaches, big and little, Mam’s, babies and escorts, enlivening the edge of the sky/sea.
The horizon appears to breathe with the movement of water, and whales. A few fishing boats stream across the glassy surface. This is my last morning here, and I am as equally sad to leave as I am grateful for the extraordinary interaction with a truly wild place. We arrived here over a week ago, and began our intensive movement and swimming immersion—ocean immersion—with these questions as placeholders for our experience, shifts, and transformations:
How do I meet the world?
In what ways am I still wild and untamed?
How do I relate to gravity?
How does returning to the water change me?
Our days alternated between Continuum Movement explorations, on land, in the sea, and at the edge of the ocean, and swimming with the whales in pristine aqua, indigo and teal water. We explored gravity by walking, swimming, and merging with the sand where the water lapped it. We spiraled, undulated, and floated in all these elements. Living in open-air traditional huts, we slept and awoke to wind, sun, rain, heat, cold and even an earthquake. One of the Continuum sounds we played with is the primordial breath, which sounds a bit like a spooky wind weaving through bare trees. Sending primordial sounds into our spines while we floated and spiraled in several feet of water, above a magical coral reef, and then crawling up onto land as a bow to our evolutionary ancestors discovering sand, land and gravity for the first time; we met the world.
I was almost “charged” by a whale today. Not just any whale, a 50-ton male escort—the male who protects the mother and her baby.
Charge is a bit too strong a word, because I did not feel for a moment he was coming at me—they can’t really see what’s in front of them until they are quite close. But he definitely was letting the boat know that it was time for us to go home, and I was swimming in his path. It was clear a message that its time for us to allow Mother and baby to rest.
This was our second day in Haa’pai, and after a sweet nights sleep in an elegant eco- lodge, where surf, wave and wind are constant lullabies, we were swimming with one of two babies who are unusually social. This year, each island that has whale swim operators has discovered a baby whale who seeks interaction with humans. I witnessed another young male go almost nose-to-nose affectionately with our guide, who he clearly recognized and loves. This young whale also swam up to me, circling around me and gathering me in a proximal belly embrace that became a spiral dance away from each other. I spiraled for a few minutes with him, and when he swam around to me again, his face rose above the water and he looked me in the eye. Barely touching him, I gently kissed his nose.
I wondered if he had some of Cosmo’s spirit sparks in him. When Cosmo, my dog of 8 years, died suddenly in April, my reverent friends assured me he would traverse the Bardo quickly, and come back as a human—in a fortunate life. Good dogs apparently earn this karma. I was horrified. I did not want Cosmo to return as a human. I have prayed that at least part of his spirit would return as a whale.
Flying here, I began to feel his presence much closer than I have in a while and I sense him around me. I knew I’d find him here. He also loved to play; to roll over and show his smooth belly, to run to me enthusiastically, unencumbered joy, when we walked in the wilds. He boldly jumped into the water when we rafted, approaching complete strangers as he swam from inner tube to inner tube. So many of his behaviors were whale and dolphin like, and I sense him in the playful big-bodied spirits I am encountering in this biggest blue playground. A dear friend from Lebanon prepared me for Cosmo’s death by saying that his spirit was growing too big for his body. Cosmo, I hope you’ve found a big enough body-home, and ocean home, for all that love.
For the next half hour, this baby exposed his belly to each one of us, rolling and spiraling to engage us in play. The elegant stripes of his bright white belly are a magnificent highlight on his inky blue barnacle tattooed, one ton body. All three—baby, mom and escort- at some point today approached us close enough that we met the gaze of their eyes. Being witnessed by the deepest compassion on the planet.
This is a mixed blessing.
Our whale guides eventually decided to stop swimming with this most interactive baby, because his Mother was having a hard time “rounding him up” when it was time for rest. He would sometimes choose to swim towards the boat with his human playmates. Humpbacks need rest to survive the long trip back to the Antarctica in November; his mother will not have eaten since she left there to travel to Tongan waters to give birth. It may be that the 1969 ban on whale hunting and the recent development of a whale swimming industry has initiated these more intimate human whale interactions. They are extremely intelligent and compassionate creatures; I have long been convinced they are more intelligent than we are and would begin to transmit to us, in service of evolution. They are teachers if we listen. With our planet on the brink of even more catastrophic storms, violence, weather changes and loss, we might benefit from learning why whales chose to return to the ocean. They were part of the species migration from sea to land, and after earth dwelling for a long time, they returned to the ocean. What do they know?
Becoming water, again
In my psychotherapy world, I am always considering the continuum of human response to the stories and histories I listen to, and the restorative processes I witness and share. Sympathy, empathy and compassion seem to exist on a spiraling continuum and we always have choices about how we engage and encounter other sentient beings. Sympathy has its place, and it can disempower those who are oppressed by human rights abuse. Empathy helps us to connect to others through our ability to feel what they feel; this is essential for understanding in relationship, and it puts us at risk for vicarious trauma when we work, as I do, with the suffering of others who are traumatized. The science of mirror neurons now tell us that we are soft wired for empathy, which may be where humans are in the ongoing evolution of species. Compassion may be a higher evolutionary emotion, practice, condition, or ability; I believe it is. And I believe whales are soft—perhaps hard—wired for compassion, and that this is their teaching. If I were a researcher, I would investigate the heart-brain ratio of whales vs. human. We celebrate and exalt our brain size and brainpower; our brains are admired as the primary source of our intelligence. I suspect whales much bigger hearts are closer in size to their brains, and there is a more myelinated, “high speed” communication pathway between their hearts and brains. They are as emotionally intelligent as they are cognitively intelligent, their heart-brain communication fosters their compassion, which I define as an ability to recognize feelings, positive or negative, in others, and differentiate them from our own. We recognize these feelings because we know them, and have experienced them; we connect with heart to others while maintaining our own integrity. This frees us up for right action; this is how we cultivate deep regard, respect, self-compassion, self-love, and dignity. The element of non-attachment that Buddhist practice promotes may be the grace in love that whales emit; the ocean pulses with this love. As the oceans warm and the humpbacks food source (krill) dies off, we are faced with losing the oceans wisdom keepers. May we grow our hearts big enough to become compassionate creatures who step into the depth of stewardship whales and all sentient brings deserve. As Emilie Conrad, creator of Continuum Movement, often asked: “The oceans are approximately 70% water, and so are we. There must be a reason. Why aren’t we investigating this?”
Thank you, whales, for opening my eyes so I can see with the depth that you do.
On the morning of our last day in Haapai, as I stepped out into the day, a pair of chickens and 7 or 8 little chicks are meandering in the path in front of my door. As the chickens swerved and nipped at tall grasses and flowers, the little chicks wove an uneasy trail behind their mother and her friend. At one point she dug with her little talons, kicking up dirt, and then her little ones picked at whatever insects she churned up for them. Then they plopped right in the middle of my path and she puffed up, ballooning her feathers so the chicks could all assemble. Then they gathered under her, an occasional tiny head or butt sticking out; a tiny chick darting out to find another place under his moms ballooning protection. They rest under the safety of their mother’s circa 18th century ballroom feather gown for 20 minutes; deep rest and settle in the middle of a beach path. Safety, comfort, protection, love. Its everywhere in the wild, and I am rewilding.
One of the participants in Dancing the Wild Home described Continuum Movement in this way: It brings color to the places that are black and white. Exploring this movement practice so close to the source of its inspiration—the ocean—on a remote island; at a solar powered eco-resort; in an open air movement studio; and then taking these embodied inquires to the water and the whales, is a homecoming. Embodying the compassionate wilderness of our hearts.
I am at the airport, leaving. I watch all the humans come and go and reflect on this week plus of encounters with beautiful humans, divine whales, and a wild place.
We are a streaming of arrivals and departures, a continuous thread of whale songs, love and eternal dreaming.
Blog: In The Presence Of Love
Whales are everywhere, here: they literally punctuate the ocean with their movements. In the space of a few minutes, looking out over the horizon or around the sea our boat is gliding through, we see pairs and trios and pods of whales breaching, spy-hopping, tail slapping and diving. This is an annual pilgrimage site, for breeding and birthing. These prisms of gem-blue waters serve as a safe place for the whales to create new life and tend to their young before they begin their own journeys back to Antartica.
This is big ocean. Tonga is in the middle of the South Pacific, and there is a lot of water. I am one of those unfortunate people who saw Jaws when it first came out, and am terrified of the deep. Having grown up near the ocean, and once been comfortable swimming long distances in it; I began to fear being out in the deep ocean, after seeing Jaws. Swimming with whales in Tonga—which I really wanted to do—meant I sometimes had to swim in deep ocean.
The trip I joined was also a freediving trip and I made it clear to the instructor that I wasn’t interested in freedivng—only whales. I think I was a little scared. But I had never really thought about it and it just seemed unnecessary: Why would I hold my breath and plunge into that deep? I just wanted to see the whales.
This blog isn’t about the apparent madness of the world right now, but it bears stating that the world seems particularly poised on the edge of many disasters, tragedies, horrors. My Utne reader just arrived with this on the cover: Curtain Call. Its about the end of us. I have believed that my niece and nephews generation may be the ones who see our species die out, for a long time. Its not a popular idea, but as the ice melts, weather destabilizes, refugees die in boats and get turned away from safe shores, fires burn, hunters kill precious beloved lions. ..The list goes on. This is why I went to visit the whales. Before I met them, I hoped they might inherit the world, because I have long believed they are far smarter, and more importantly—more compassionate than we. I think I am right.
Back to the water: In the midst of a crumbling world, my Father’s transition, my own free-float out of structured job and the assurance of steady contract work (i.e I am remaking my professional life), I needed to be in the deep. I visited Tonga in the coldest winter anyone could remember there. What that means is winds of 20-25 knots, rough oceans, cold water. The whales love the cold. I don’t own a wetsuit and have never free-dived and was not prepared for how physically difficult it would be to stay warm and float in this season of unusual weather. But that’s where the whales were.
Its kind of crazy to jump in the water and swim with whales. Whales are big. HUGE . Massive. And yet being in the water with them runs the continuum of deep rest to playful encounter. Whales see us. If they are not interested, they swim away immediately. If they hang out on the surface for a while, they may be beckoning you to join them in their watery home. If you swim to within 30, give or take, meters of them, they may remain floating on the surface or below you. They may get really still. They may then swim away. Or they may circle and arc a pathway that intersects with your tiny treading place in the giant ocean, and see you.
Whale babies seem delightfully innocent and clumsy; there are things they don’t know yet. They squeak like little puppies and often veer right towards you, unsure of their fins and tails; this could seem threatening because these “small” whales are 2-3 tons, but they are curious and want to try you out as a playmate. Mothers, and the male escorts (who may or may not be family) float below, intervening only if they are concerned for the baby, or the baby and her mom. Once one of our group members dove to soon and the mama turned and sped her baby quickly away. Another time the escort began to move because our group had inadvertently separated mom from baby. Some encounters are acknowledgements, and even feel like reacquainting with an old friend. On one of my swims, the baby rose up to the surface and then arced around and swam towards me, then crossed right in front of me. His eyes seemed to suggest that he or she was teasing me. He and his Mama stuck around, but not too close. To be above the silhouette of dark and white (each whale has its own very unique markings), and watch the long body glide effortlessly and slowly away, with a final view of the white fluke as it drops down deep, is magic.
One time a baby rose up to the surface about 10 feet from me, and I popped up to see it there, then when I dunked under, the mama was circling around and swam right by me, looking me in the eye. Are you a worthy playmate for my child? I guess I was. They remained and floated, swam, and even the baby frolicked for over an hour. The escort, whose was just a dark shadow resting on the ocean floor, stayed right under us until they began to migrate. When he rose up, a fellow swimmer was right on top of him and his extended leg was a mere 2 feet from his massive back. Its exciting, its calming, its soothing, and its deeply moving..
Free diving is an exquisite sport, and despite my initial lack if interest and fear, I managed to get to 8 meters on my second try. And held my breath for twenty seconds. It felt completely natural to be in ocean, and as a long time Continuum teacher, I realize that of course—this is home. We are ocean . 70% water. We need to breathe, but we can learn to hold breath to return to our origins and play beneath the surface. As my comfort increased, I began to dive closer to the whales beneath the surface I held my breath for longer times. And when a snorkel filled or a mask flooded and I fell behind my group and was suddenly far from the boat and far from the group in that deep stormy ocean, I soldiered on. Three guiding thoughts: You chose to be here. You know how to swim. If you see a shark just kick it.”
Somehow, I confronted fear and feel in love with free diving and with endless hours in ocean. It was ok to be almost landless for 8 full days. I left these encounters with the sense that the whales are in charge. They know we are here; they’ve been watching us for millennia. They watched life emerge from ocean to land, as they did; then when they chose to return to the ocean, they had seen creatures move on earth. They first heard our legs in the water and then perhaps heard canoes and kayaks, sailboats, motorboats, water ski’s. They hear the sonar of large naval ships (which often damage their usual migratory and feeding patterns) so they know we are here. They are always watching. So I think those of us who arrive out of curiosity and respect, with a sincere interest in learning about and from the whales, might be welcomed. I wouldn’t want too many people in the ocean at any one time, and for now, whale swimming is a privilege. It costs a lot to fly to Tonga and stay here for a week and access a boat that can take you out each day. It’s a once on a lifetime experience for many of us, and one that merits not just the action of being in the water with these ancient ocean wisdom keepers, but also reflection.
Read about whales. Read about the whale wars and whaling industry and the sacrifices they have made as they continue to forge on and steward the oceans. Watch movies like The Whale, and Blackfish. Whales are sensitive, intelligent, compassionate, and holy. When I contemplate the state of the world, I truly hope that if our human species dies out, whales remain and perhaps return to their rule.
To watch a baby whale nuzzle against its mother is to see pure love. As their long bodies wiggle like a fish, the mama stays soft and calm, allowing her child to playfully scratch and soothe itself on her rugged skin. They show wisdom, affection, and acceptance. They allow us to be in their space.
On my last day, I hovered above a mama whale, about 10 feet. She was resting in between ocean floor and ocean surface. Her fins were slowly undulating to keep her afloat. I gazed at the eyes on each side of her head, the top of her head where her massive brain is. We knew the other was there. I told her several times that I loved her. I sounded as close as I can to a whale song and while I have no idea if my tiny sound carried to her, if she heard anything, I trust she knew I tried to outreach my voice to hers. Whales truly feel like the embodiment of love. At home in the oceans, their powerful bodies swimming unbearably long and cold journeys, they move slowly, gracefully, fluidly in their watery realms. Its like being in a waking dream and witnessing the creation of a world. Dreaming. I am beginning to believe that whales not only welcome us; they long for us to respectfully be with them, in their environment, so that they might teach us how to be in this world. They displace a lot of water just in the act of breathing, and the massive ocean they dance in is still all around. Ever changing, their gift is traversing the unknown to ensure that life goes on.
And to remind us: love is big.
Australia & Continuum, Earth, Sky & Body: Spring 2015
There are still places in this world where the sky is awash with stars. Tasmania is one of them. In this Australian island, just off this most ancient land, the night sky is aglow with the light that emanates from the space that still illuminates the death of these once bright cosmic bodies.
To lie on the ground and look into the stars is to look into the mirror. There are numerous citations re: the relationship between humans, and stars. It’s carbon, apparently, that connect us; I am not a scientist but I have read numerous references to the relationship between us, and the stars. In essence, that we are stardust.
After guiding a Continuum Movement Depths Retreat, “At the Crossroads: The Serpents Dream”, outside Sydney; my husband and I traveled to Tasmania to visit a dear friend and to spend a week in the many places alive with raw and wild beauty that define this magical place.
Sydney, the most populated city in Australia, has far less people than New York City alone (#). I am not even sure all of Australia has as many people as New York City. I could look up facts about this, but I actually don’t care in this moment. What I am inspired to write about is how much we have lost, in human evolution and the subsequent development of “civilization”, of our connection to nature.
In Continuum, a movement practice and a life practice, we use sound and movement to engage with our own fluid body and nature. That we are 70% water, and the earth is 70% water, cannot be a mistake. It might be another mirror. The galaxies are also water blessed, and its possible that the movement, flow, and conductivity of water is an aspect of our planetary interconnectivity and holds potential for communication, restoration and healing. As humans, we often say “ we need each other.” Continuum Movement is a practice of breathing, moving and living this question of inter-connectivity and relatedness-between-everything, from the sea to the stars, and embodying the possibility of a sea full of stars.
In Continuum, we expand the concepts of interoception, exteroception, and proprioception: Bioception (our evolutionary, and current , connection to all things as expressed through the biomorphic movements that we engage with and become when we engage our fluid system); ecoception (our ability to connect to the natural world through our ability to express movement and communicate as wave motion, to be nourished and nourish our world and be reminded that we are not alone); Cosmoception (our lineage in the stars and galaxies; historical and future; the ultimate mirror).
Continuum Movement may be an antidote to the onslaught of technology, radiation, speed and crowding of our “modern” world. Continuum is where we interoceptively see the sky full of stars, no matter where we are, because we are seeing our own reflection everywhere.
2014 Trauma Resources International Annual Report
Today marks the five-year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake. I am acknowledging it today with my fellow Continuum Movement teachers. This is our first meeting since our founder and the creator of Continuum, Emilie Conrad, died. And this is the first time I have not been in Haiti for the anniversary of the earthquake.
Emilie Conrad was, and is, one of the most recognized and celebrated pioneers of somatics and movement arts. After a devastating childhood of alienation, illness and abuse, she found dance, and dance became her refuge and her sanctuary. In 1955, after years of dancing with Katherine Dunham, she moved to Haiti. It was there, in this land that is both enchanted and shadow, enlightened and troubled, she began to innovate an exploration into movement as healing, as artistry, and as life practice. This movement practice is called Continuum Movement.
Amber Gray, TRI’s Director, became an Authorized Continuum Movement teacher in 2006. Continuum Movement informs and inspires the framework for restoration she teaches in Haiti and elsewhere. When Emilie died on April 14, 2014, she left behind a devoted body of teachers who will carry her work forward.
Continuum Movement is a significant part of the Body as Voice/Restorative Movement Psychotherapy framework, and the IDEO team was introduced to it in 2013. They have requested more. When Emilie died she bequeathed TRI a significant gift that will most likely be used to create a training program, or perhaps a school, to bring somatic and arts based therapies to more of those who are requesting it. Since the completion of the training series this year (April 23-26, 2014, a one day wrap up of the Body as Voice series, and a two day training that focused on applying Restorative Movement Psychotherapy, with children affected by trauma) we have had requests from not only the IDEO team to continue the training, but also from educators, a program for autistic children, and community-based programs in the provinces, to begin the training series. We also wish to “fortify” the Training-of-Trainers component of the program through more depths training and on site supervision. None of this would be possible without Emilie’s generous commitment to Haiti.
We will work with IDEO to decide the best way to address the unmet needs of those affected by trauma, and to honor Emilie’s passion for, and deep devotion to, Haiti. Because Amber began the Body as Voice series in Lebanon in December, 2014, we will return to Haiti later in 2015, after the series in Lebanon is well underway and to allow for the IDEO team to practice and integrate their skills with ongoing skype supervision. We will continue to update this website with our plans and our progress.
Always, thank you for your support. Ayibobo,
Amber Gray, Director
I am sitting in my hotel room in a lovely suburb of Beirut; for the past 24 hours I have heard sirens almost nonstop. Three bombings in 6 days; one in eastern Lebanon on Friday and then two, in Beirut, in 36 hours. A car bomb went off two blocks from the office I work in late Monday night/Tuesday morning and they arrested a dozen ISIS members in Hamra, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Beirut. It is breaking my heart to see Lebanon crippled under the weight of over a million Syrian refugees, bracing for floods of Iraqi refugees and waves of this insurgent violence that seems to be mushrooming here. It’s growing tense here. I will be leaving tonight with a heavy heart, a sense of personal relief, and deep concern for the violence that seems to be spreading so quickly in the Middle East.
Earlier today, as I joined colleagues to acknowledge the UN’s Day against torture (June 26th), and the powerful and courageous work of a colleague here, one of the explosions occurred in the next neighborhood over. I watched my Lebanese colleagues begin to frantically make and receive phone calls, checking on loved ones, being checked on themselves. The news is everywhere; these recent bombings retribution to Hezbollah for their involvement in Syria. Sunni vs Shia. My friends here say that the extremist groups “want to bring the message to Lebanon”.
A few evenings ago, I took a brief swim between work and dinner, and a lovely little girl (about 7) was playing, alone, in the pool. She smiled and approached me so I asked her name, and she willingly engaged. I learned that she was Syrian; that her Father was still in Damascus because he had work there and had to keep earning money; that her mother was “tired from all the fighting from the war” and was taking a nap in their room. She said she spent a lot of time, alone, in the pool.
When I was her age, I was never allowed to swim, unattended. There were hotel staff at the bar nearby, and one clearly was watching her, but she was playing alone in an adult pool.
This may be a cultural thing, and I have no judgment about it. But from my worldview, that a Mother is so tired she has to send her daughter to a pool is a simple reality of the consequences of war. It’s so easy to turn off the T.V., play golf, order a latte, walk the dog, go shopping. It can’t be easy to leave a little girl alone, in water well over her head, because the non-stop violence and brutality that you have been marinating in for years has exhausted you.
I attended a support group for adolescent age girls who are living outside Tripoli, in Northern Lebanon, about 50 kilometers from Homs, Syria. The facilitator is brilliant and very skilled, and because these girls and their families (if they still have one) are living in a seemingly eternal limbo, not yet resettled and not able to go home for the foreseeable future, this is not an in-depth processing therapy group. Its an activities and discussion/sharing-based support group, to offer the young women a little hope. One of the activities was to “draw a place that feels safe”. They did this in pairs, first sharing a little bit about this place with their partner. One pair shared a picture of a large hill. Underneath the hill was a shelter, furnished like a living room in a home. It looked inviting. Above the hill, rockets were falling from the sky and landing on the hill. When they shared the story of their drawing, one girl broke down, and said: “This is the only place I feel safe. I am not safe here in Lebanon because they do not want us. This is not my home. I am much safer in this shelter my father built, because it is my home.”
I have some precious friends here who I grow more concerned for; its awful to witness the escalating violence, and the pain and stress that of course increases daily for those living their lives here. These are lives just like yours or mine; lives lived by people who love other people, enjoy walks in the forest or along the beach, share their own form of prayer…..Yala.
Later, a moment to dwell. I walked through some of my favorite neighborhoods in Beirut. There are some old places here. I had a strange moment one night; sitting at the St Georges harbor, having dinner with friends, and some of the buildings were lit up in a purple hue. I suddenly felt myself at Sydney Harbor again—where I was barely two weeks ago! For a moment, I could not distinguish the geography of that moment—I not sure how else to express it. I was dwelling in the present tense of space, not place. The harbor was Beirut and Sydney and many other harbors, all at the same time.
Perhaps it was the purple lights; perhaps it’s the eternity of the ocean; perhaps its just pausing long enough to notice things that are the same, wherever we are.
The drive from Beirut to airport was strange. Usually, I am terrified of the drivers in Beirut; many cars seem to bullet down the highway, all going very fast. They cut one another off by a few inches without slowing down. Tonight, there are significantly fewer cars and I see my driver swerve many times to avoid any other vehicles we pass. I notice myself wondering if there is a car bomb in any of these vehicles. And when I catch myself thinking: “I wonder if the driver is also thinking about this; if that’s why he is voiding cars and sidewinding?” And then I think—what a strange thing to think about!
Twenty-four hours later, I am sitting on a bright white bench perfectly placed on a bright green lawn. I have been deposited by the airport shuttle driver at The Ethan Allen Inn, in Danbury, CT., a place I am familiar with from my childhood. Spent a few towns over. A bird sings cheerfully in the tree in front of me; it’s a warm, peaceful, sunny summer day in Connecticut. I remember them well—lazy, wandering days spent with friends at the local swimming hole or playing games in the many fields that were eventually replaced with surburbia. I am sitting at the convergence of so many realities—calm and peaceful; uncertain and frightened; my own childhood memories; old and new friends and colleagues I cherish in Lebanon. These worlds separated only by the surreality of air travel. It’s a strange place to dwell.
I’m finishing a two-week trip to Australia. I taught two classes here, and after a year long run with quarterly trips to my favorite country on earth, I am somewhat numb to the reality that, trauma workshop series complete, I won’t be back for a year, give or take.
Australia is under my skin. Every time I leave, I feel sad if I don’t know when I am returning. This is the saddest I’ve been, because changes in my professional life mean it will be quite some time, and a little harder, to spend the extended time I am accustomed to being here, 3-4 times a year.
I am not going to write about the work this time, I am going to write about Australians. Every time I visit I meet a few remarkable people, and I am reminded why I wish I could just move here.
A good friend and I were walking in Tasmania’s bush; a delightful wetland of rainforest, waterfalls and pools. Towards the end of the hike, we noticed a man with sophisticated camera equipment, walking very slowly, taking pictures of patches of earth. We passed him a few times in our back-and-forth between the waterfalls, and we began to talk to him. It turned out my friend knew his daughter and they shared several close friends or family members in their circles of people.
He was taking photos of lichen and fungi, one of his favorite pastimes for many years. I estimated him to be somewhere in his 70’s. He told us about the different fungi we had seen that day and we talked about all the places over the past 40 or so years he had photographed fungi and lichen, in these very forests. As our conversation turned to travel, he shared that he had covered every inch of Tasmania’s forests and bush-land, many times, and constantly discovered new terrain through his unique and passionate lens on plant-life. He has been to the mainland a few times, but other than that; has never left Australia. As he shared his journeys through native walks that my friend, a local, had never even heard of, his descriptions brimming with love for this land; I realized that he had journeyed farther and to wilder places than I have after seeing more than 80 countries. The long distance nature and fast pace of my lifestyle does not cover the ground, nor does it offer the opportunity to love and caress place with such detail to name, beauty, locale.
He knows each and every subject he has documented as image in intimate detail. Before we began our conversation with him, we observed him spending 10-15 minutes contemplating a small patch of earth before he took a photo. A true journey.
Aussie bus drivers are the nicest in the world. One of the very first times I visited Sydney, I was trying to catch a bus to a beach area. I went to the wrong stop, and because it was a quiet part of the day, the bus driver (who was actually just finishing his shift) said “Aw, come on love, hop on I’ll take you there.” He drove me right to the beach, a few blocks off his route, and after his working hours.
Last night, I went to Vivid in Sydney, near the rocks, alone and by bus. The driver of my first bus ride, who took me into the city, didn’t charge me because he realized I was alone and not familiar with the area. He took the time to point me in the direction I was going. When I went to take the bus home, I waited at the wrong end of the station, and when the bus pulled up, the driver patiently told me how to get to the other side of the station, and to wait on a parallel street. When I started down the wrong passageway, he pulled a bus full of passenger’s over and called to me. I walked back so he could patiently, again, tell me exactly where to go to get my bus. He watched while I found the correct path.
This level of consideration is simple, straightforward, and remarkably usual in OZ.
Vivid was amazing. Australia may be way ahead of the US in combining creativity with technology. The opera house was alight with dramatic moving palettes of color, image, and music accompanying each digital dance. Each museum was transformed into a display choreographed by the latest technology. Very Modern Art. I danced on circles that lit up as different colors, depending on how hard you landed on them. It was an invitation to jump, skip, leap, and hop. Children and adults alike we laughing, and lighting up the enclosure by hop-skotching and dancing from colored disk to colored disk. I have always believed that all cities, towns and villages should contain playgrounds for adults. The negative energies, moods, consequences of our modern stresses and speed might be transformed into playfulness, love and community by what Dr. Stephen Porges research eloquently calls “mobilization without fear,” a state of energized movement and interaction with others. Mainstreaming adult play could be an anecdote to stress many of us frequently endure, and perhaps a preventative to violence.
Tennant Creek, Australia
Tennant Creek is a small town situated in a vast expanse of outback. It literally sits at the edge of the dry, red earth climate of central Australia and the tropical top end of the Northern Territories. Just a few miles south of Tennant Creek (500 kilometers north of Alice Springs, the center; 1000 kilometers south of Darwin on the coast of the top end), the landscape is suddenly different. The termite hills are higher. The air is denser. Its hotter. And its flat.
I was invited to teach a staff support day here by a friend of a friend, who was also organizing a similar workshop in Alice Springs. I chose to do this workshop over returning to New York City for the annual Dance Movement Therapy Conference at which I was to participate in several significant (and quite possibly “career enhancing”) opportunities. I debated for a moment, but having been to Uluru twice, I am drawn to the outback…and could not imagine passing up an opportunity to travel to a remote frontier town in the middle of Australia. A few of my Aussie friends made fun at m excitement to see Tennant Creek—it is truly not near anything. I love space and I love going to uncommon places.
The workshop was attendee by government workers, local organizations, Indigenous people and white Australians. I facilitate staff care trainings as a process, vs. handing out the usual lists of to do and not to do. Culture, tradition, belief all become core to this process. When a group is mixed, at both groups were, and especially in a place like Tennant Creek where the original Aboriginal people are still connected to country here, and who more recently lost it to colonialism and mining, dynamics are potent. There was a clear divide here, and yet all the people in my workshop were working with the indigenous people. One of them was a member of the stolen generation. That legacy is still an overwhelmingly present one.
I fell in love with Tennant Creek. Somewhat like Darwin but in a far less urban way (Darwin has a city downtown), Tennant Creek is a frontier town at the end of (or the middle of) the world. People living and working there have to be committed to the land. Its tough and honest. I slept really deeply to winds that had an echo I’d never heard before—perhaps because they had danced across such a vast open space, city-less and inhabited by a few cattle stations, indigenous communities, and the few Aboriginal people who can still walk their Songlines.
I had a few interesting events in the red center heart of Australia. One participant in two of my workshops came for a meeting to talk about some of the work we did, and as she walked into my room, she flatly said “I have a joey in the bag can I hang it somewhere?” Sort of like “Where can I tie my horse,” I was stunned at first, repeated her words and then wide eyed I’m sure, I said, “YOU HAVE A BABY KANGAROO?!”
Sure enough. She is a wildlife career and was tending to a very young kangaroo whose mom had been killed. I played with her, cuddled her and kissed her little nose and she accepted it without flinching. Australia has a wonderful tradition of wildlife caring; its tragic there are so many animals killed on increasingly busy roads, and, the tiny ones who are rescued from the marsupial pouches are well tended to. Appreciation for the joy of wildlife and the natural world is palpable here.
I spent much of my free day in Alice Springs at the Botanical Gardens, which are stunning. Descriptions won’t do the landscape justice. I’ve heard people “snuff” at the mention of visiting Alice Springs, because there is “nothing there”. I actually appreciate places of nothingness, because there is stillness, and quiet. However, as with most “nothing” places, one only need pause long enough to settle eyes, ears, and all the senses into then landscape (or seascape) and there is a discovery garden right here.
Alice is a place of spaciousness, extraordinary red earth that truly does pulse with a heartbeat from the center of this ancient continent. Amazing, colorful, adorable wildlife; a chorus of bird songs that permeate the air with melodies unique to this land and sky; legendary rock mountains whose stories go back 40,000 or more years. The obvious and ongoing pressures of the colonization of Australia by Europeans are still evident here. The connection between the Indigenous peoples of Australia, and this land, is also palpable; the abject poverty and forced disassociation of many Aborigines from the earth source of their stories and traditions is painfully clear. This is country for many of Australia’s indigenous, and there is clear disparity between them, and the white settler descendants. Being in Alice is like standing in the heart center and feeling its brokenness all at once.
2013 Trauma Resources International Annual Report
On January 12, 2013, I was in Haiti for our Trauma Resources International (TRI) Ke Ansam program. This year, we marked the 3-year anniversary of the devastating 2010 earthquake. There were several commemorations, though not to the scale of the past 2 years. This year, most Haitians spent the day with family, in quiet and deeply personal reflection and acknowledgement. I spent the day with one of “my” families there; Dr. Roseline Benjamin and her children. The night before, we listened to her son Mikaben perform at a new restaurant/ performance space in Port au Prince. His song “Ayiti Se” has become very popular, and I first heard it in the second session of the current training series we are providing for psychologists and social workers. It’s a stunning song, that acknowledges the beautiful, historical, spiritual and magical aspects of Haiti in a way that celebrates her, rather than mourn her, as much of the current news coming out of Haiti still does.
MIkaben is working on a documentary, inspired by “Ayiti Se”, which will share everything that is beautiful in Haiti’s extraordinary history. This film will document the many places, practices, traditions and “Haiti’isms” that weave the historical and spiritual fabric that form Haiti’s unique resilience and beauty. TRI has already supported this film project by creating an opportunity for Mikaben and his crew to attend the sacred ceremonies to honor Ogou, the Lwa (spirit) of Warriorship, and Truth, in Cap Haitien and Limonade. We also visited the scared mud baths in Plen du Nord that occur annually for Ogou. These visits took place July 24-26, 2013, just a few days after we completed part 5 of “Body as Voice”; July 19-21. (Photos are posted in the photos section). This training was a transition training: we are shifting more explicitly into the training-of-trainers format, so that the IDEO clinicians who have been attending the training series can begin to share and train other colleagues wishing to integrate Restorative Movement Psychotherapy into their practice.
The generous contributions, donations and funds awarded at the end of 2012 by The Frost Foundation, The Kind World Foundation, The Marian Chace Foundation, Charles F Gray Trust and Donnalea Goetz will support the ongoing Body as Voice: Restorative Movement Psychotherapy for Survivors of Trauma training through to its completion in 2014. Part 6 of the series was scheduled for December 2013, but had to be postponed due to the ice storms that paralyzed DWI (and cancelled all the flights TRI Director Amber Gray was scheduled to take to Port au Prince, 3 days in a row). We are currently working on the reschedule. Following Part 6, we will take a brief break to allow for the integration of the material, and then TRI will provide 2-3 more trainings in specialty areas such as working with children; integrating ritual and spiritual practice; Continuum Movement and other to-be-determined topics. TRI only offers training in direct response to requests by the recipients; the amazing clinical team of IDEO wants time to integrate and practice what they have learned so that they can request future training topics that will focus on their immediate and long-term practice needs.
As always, thank you for your generous support. TRI welcomes your donations for its ongoing work in Haiti. As we move towards completion of the Body as Voice training series, we will continue to work with IDEO’s projects (which include Mikaben’s documentary project; Child Psychologist Melodie Benjamin’s budding non profit program for traumatized children; and IDEO’s summer camp for children who otherwise do not have opportunities to attend camp). Just as Mikaben sings in his ballad tribute to Haiti, TRI is committed to working locally with organizations and people who enhance and highlight the true spirit of Haiti. When we return to Haiti in 2014, we will meet with our IDEO colleagues to determine our ongoing collaborations.
Bon Anne Nouvelle!
Haiti: New Life
I don’t know how to begin this blog. I left my Haitian home this morning, feeling tired after 11 days of teaching stacked up onto ceremony and cultural gatherings. I felt tired and gleeful. The sun was shining (despite warnings four days ago about Tropical Storm Dorian) and Haiti, for the first time in a long time, was sparkling like a jewel. So I thought about beginning like this: Ayiti Cherie, you are sparkling again, resurrecting your former place as the “Pearl of the Antilles”.
By the time I was boarded on my plane and sitting at my computer, however, another beginning had emerged: The unexpected is to be expected. Actually, there is no unexpected in Haiti—expect anything and everything. I was upgraded to business class, and looked forward to a relaxing journey (3 flights!) home. As soon as I settled my luggage into the bin, I sat down. I suddenly felt that my seat was damp. I stood up, and sure enough, the seat was wet. So were my pants, all the way through to my underwear.
After reporting it to the crew, I went to the bathroom, and am sad to report that it smelled like urine. I reported this to the crews, and they were not surprised—a very elderly woman sat there just before me. I have seen several people pee in the middle of the aisles on fights to and from Haiti, being unaccustomed to the more formal structure of flying bathrooms, so I wasn’t surprised. But I felt gross. The airline changed my seat; all they had was an economy class seat which was much harder and smaller—that was an interesting revelation. I always knew the front cabin was more comfortable—now I know why. It’s a seriously different seat.
I did my best to clean up and dry off. Half way through the flight, I went back to the bathroom. When I returned to my seat, lunch was served. As I sat down, I once again, felt wet—on my hands, arms and sleeves. Red wine!! Everywhere! The man sitting next to me had spilled his red wine everywhere, and not said a word. He WATCHED ME sit in it, and put my hands in it. All I could do was thank him, loudly, for masking the urine smell with the odor of red wine, and get some soda water to dab out the stain.
Obviously, this could have been a very irritating situation, but I had to laugh. Wine and piss. This is very Haitian (though rum and piss might be more apropos). One becomes the other. The cycle of intake and output, nourish and eliminate, life and death. I left Haiti with the distinct impression she is in the midst of a grand resurrection, a phoenix rising from the rubble, and while things are far from perfect, there is much to hope for in this country that is too often defined by its misery and corruption indices.
The gems: the parks that were not too long ago tent cities are now brightly painted, refreshingly colorful, play-provoking sites. It’s common to see children playing on playground equipment, lovers or friends holding hands as they stroll through the parks; families enjoying being outdoors together. There are many more freshly built and paved roads, connecting not just places in Port au Prince to one another, but also other cities (Hinche, Cap Haitien) to Port au Prince, which suggest the possibility of decentralizing services and development throughout the country. Even the recently finished brand new road from Port au Prince to Cap Haitien, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Sandy last Fall, was being rebuilt, again. This never used to happen in Haiti!
I also saw many, many billboards (the primary way to advertise performances and social events) lining the major driving routes in Port au Prince, displaying everything from galas to sales to music to theater to dance to anti-trafficking campaigns and human rights messages. The color, enthusiastic messaging and sheer number of these billboards are encouraging: they show that there are a lot of day and night-time activities going on in a city that just three years ago was shut down by a devastating, murderous earthquake, and that 6, 7 and 8 years ago was shut down by violence. When I lived there in 2004-5, we often had 6 pm curfews.
There is a fair amount of criticism, and equally, uplifted spirits, being expressed by people in Haiti, for their current President. That he had no true political “upbringing “or experience prior to his election can certainly be a point of contention; he has made some mistakes. However, what almost every Haitian friend, colleague, or acquaintance I have talked to about Martelly says about him:
HE LOVES HAITI. HE LOVES OUR COUNTRY.
And, he is teaching Haitians (especially children) to reconnect to Haiti’s long and rich history of culture, spirit, arts, and independence with pride. Students can now do school projects in Kreyol (they have a choice). There are more folkloric dance troops, and more performance spaces and nightclubs to watch them in. There is more traditional (across generations and genres) music to listen, dance and celebrate to. There are two “Kanavals” a year; not just one, as there used to be in the mid and late 1900’s ,before the awful embargo years. Much of what I see emerging under his presidency is the color and magic of Haiti’s soul.
I have written about this before: The more deeply acquainted with, and connected to, Haitians can become with their own rich artistic expression and culture (which so much of the world, unbeknownst to many Haitians, celebrates while they have learned about their own practices and artistry as shameful, primitive or sorcerous), the more Haiti can restore the strength, vibrancy and integrity that is inherent in her individual and collective history.
Japan: Bamboo, Butoh & Bums
A newly made friend, who took my Radical Freedom Continuum Movement class in Tokyo in June, just arrived for a visit. Her welcome presence reminds me that I never finished my Japan blog; so here is an updated version, based on her sharing, this morning, of a lovely healing experience initiated by Santa Fe’s magical light. This is the same light that calls so many artists to this land. Before I moved here, I often visited here for replenishment and sanctuary. So without sharing details of her private journey, I will share that it is a lovely reminder of how restorative the land in New Mexico is.
I will share that her description of the light and movement of tree branches reminded me of the first time I traveled to Japan, in 1981, to study Haiku. Haiku has always been my favorite poetry form. I was in college at the time, and without knowing anyone other than a High School friend’s family (whom I stayed with), I ventured there to learn as much as I could about this seemingly simple, yet deeply complex, poetry form. I went to libraries all over the city and read as much poetry, and description and analysis, as I could. I sought out poets to learn from them. And, I wrote. Of all the poems I wrote, only one received praise from my then poetry teacher, who simply said “Yes. You got it. This is Haiku”.
The poem, which is about the moon, is long gone. It did get published in our college poetry journal, which I hope to find someday.
Other than this aspect of my experience, I was not crazy about Japan. It was super busy and crowded. People yelled at me, for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on the subway. One man poked my breasts on the subway, mumbling something about American women. And when I saw a woman being beaten at a railway station, by a man, and I began to intervene; I was held back and told: “You can’t interfere. This is customary here; it’s ok for a man to discipline his wife”.
When I was invited to teach in Japan, I hesitantly agreed, mostly to cover for a colleague who couldn’t make the trip. I was more than pleasantly re-introduced to some of the magic of Japan, and now find myself longing to return. Having seen several Butoh performances, I experienced a visceral connection to the powerful, dark, and contemplative nature of this particular Japanese art. And having spent much of the past 30+ years since I was in Japan working in multiple contexts of violence across vast cultural spaces, I am better able to enter another cultural context with less judgment and more witness presence.
What I actually wish to share about Japan is my great amusement at their toilets. Yes, there was plenty of magic and sanctity: bamboo (my favorite plant and one that I believe can offer healing on so many levels), Butoh dance, ancient ocean water hot springs, Buddhist temples. But one of the things that truly amazed me is their innovation, as exemplified by their toilets.
When I was in Japan in 1981, all the toilets I used were squat toilets (which I actually like because they are better for the low back). On this trip, I encountered not only a modern standing flush toilet, but a modern standing flush toilet with features.
Some of the features are:
Butt-washing (it had a nicer name, but I can’t remember it)
The first time I used one of these toilets, I pushed the “flushing sounds” button. The toilet made a flushing sound while it wasn’t flushing! I asked my class the purpose of this, and they giggled, and then stated that it was for making a flushing sound when you were too shy for others to hear your peeing. I then realized how extraordinary it is to be able to disguise any human elimination sounds that might emanate from a public bathroom stall. Brilliant.
I didn’t try any of the other buttons until my last day, because I was a little scared of them. By then, I figured I needed to at least try before I left the country.
I tried the bidet first, and fortunately, it turned itself off after a few moments. Then I tried the butt washing button, and it freaked me out. Not knowing how to make it stop, I stood up, and—the water began spraying all over the stall, and beyond it! I heard people yelp from the other side of the door and there was a bit of chaos and yelling. Apologizing, I sat back down and bore it until it stopped (which seemed like several minutes). Once the toilet calmed down, and I calmed down, I found the “off” button. I stayed in the stall until everyone else left the bathroom.
I didn’t tell anyone about the incident, and no-one in my class said anything, so perhaps none of them were there. What was interesting for me, because of my interest in the parallels between fractal geometry and intergenerational trauma, is that later that evening, when we visited the ancient ocean hot springs, I was bathing in the communal bath rooms, where you sit on a chair in your own stall without walls, and bathe yourself with a small hand held shower. I don’t really know what happened, but within a few minutes of beginning my bath, my hand held shower seemed to develop a mind of its own, and I suddenly heard a scream from a woman to my left. My hand held shower was spraying her!!!!! She was calmly using a bucket to rinse herself, and was suddenly doused by my shower water.
I am not suggesting that this was an example of intergenerational (or any) trauma; when I apologized in Japanese several times, she kindly laughed and resumed her bathing. I bemusedly pondered at the likelihood of my spraying people in Japan, twice in one day, with water gone wonky. This is where the inquiry into fractal geometry (i.e. a self replicating equation being a metaphor for how the Fx*$ did that happen twice in one day?!) comes into place. I was there to teach Continuum Movement which is the most fluid, watery movement practice I know. Continuum is an ongoing inquiry into water as connection, healing, and life. This is certainly something for me to contemplate: Having shown up to share a movement practice created from the restorative aspects of water, I actually caused some surprise—and even some startle—by spraying complete strangers with bath and toilet water.
A Visit To Foundation House
Amber’s visit to Foundation house, one of the global leaders in torture treatment and refugee well-being:
Amber elected to The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) Board of Directors.
Beginning in October, 2013, Amber will become the ADTA’s Western Region Member-at-Large, for a two year term.
This is my second time to Lebanon. It’s always difficult to put into words why one loves certain places with a particular fierceness. Lebanon is one of those places for me. When I left here, 3 years ago, I felt really sad that I might never come back. Despite everyone-who-cares-for-me concerns such as “Is it safe?” Why are you going to Beirut”? Isn’t Lebanon awfully close to Syria”? I couldn’t wait to get on the Middle East Air Liban flight from Paris to Beirut.
I travel a lot, and never feel like I am too far from home. I’m good at traveling—don’t get jet lag, sleep right away on my new schedule, feel pretty energized within 24 hours. I have some very good friends here, and we were visiting the magnificent Cedar forests of northern Lebanon yesterday, and talking about my feeling of connection to this truly ancient place. I don’t know if you’ve ever remembered something long-tucked away in a memory crevasse, but I suddenly realized that one of the first foreign people (if not THE first) I have ever met (or have a recollection of meeting) was a Lebanese man, Sharif. Sharif was a groomsman in my best friend, Susan MacDonald’s, older brothers wedding. This wedding was a big, big deal for me—-and representative of the kinds of kindnesses best friends parents show to the little ones who are important in their kids’ lives. I had never been to a wedding and coming from a small family with most extended family members living far away, would not have a chance to go to many weddings (I have been to less than 10 or 15 in my life) so the dressing up, the fanciments, the ritual and sanctity were all a first for me. So was meeting Sharif, who aside from being one of the handsomest men I have ever seen (yes, to this day) was one of the kindest. On my second trip to Lebanon, I am finding that these are not such unusual attributes here.
Susan and I stared at Sharif a lot, and giggled and probably pointed. His response was to spend time speaking with us, and he told me about Lebanon. His words created an image – a very visceral one—of a land of mountains and sea, of glittering and lively cities and ancient places; I think in my little girl imagination (I was still in grade school) it probably sounded like paradise. So I have always wanted to come to Lebanon, and sitting here now, with dear friend and colleague Dr Rabih El Chamay (who is ultimately responsible for the invitation that brought me here in late 2009), I am really touched to remember the kindness of a once stranger so many years ago that planted the seed to visit not only Lebanon, but also the world. Many years and wars later, I hope Sharif is ok.
Lebanon has many treasures, and on this trip I have been to the north and the south, and must comment on the variety of symbology one encounters while driving Lebanese highways. Headed South, within 30 minutes of Beirut proper, there are Lebanese flags and Hezbollah flags lining the highway; billboards of martyrs appear every so often all the way to Tyr. Headed North, one is soon winding though mountain villages and seeing images of Mother Mary and innumerable saints, everywhere. The canyons and hillsides are dotted with ancient…I mean truly ANCIENT—monasteries. It’s like being inside a quaint, old-fashioned Christian history lesson.
A primary reason for my travel here was to present a dance movement therapy workshop at the NISCVT annual conference. NICSVT is an organization that works with the many Palestinians refugees who have been warehoused here (yes, that’s really the term) since the 1940’s. The focus of this years conference was on education for refugee children—as I am sure you, the reader, can imagine, there are many issues with education for people who have been living in a stateless condition in a country that will not grant them full status to study, work, or participate in daily society. The relationship between the Palestinians and their Lebanese hosts is a long and complex one, and I won’t elaborate here. I learned a lot on this trip; about Palestinian involvement in (and instigation of) some of the horrible conflicts that have plagued Lebanon since the 1970’s. Having visited at least 4 camps in Beirut and Tyr, I have seen the conditions that the Palestinians are forced to live in; in self constructed mini cities with dangerous wires dangling thickly over every alleyway and blocking the sky. Buildings and alleys through these mini cities are cramped, crowded and dirty just from the sheer impossibility of squeezing anything else in. People are literally living on top of one another in a city planners unplanned haphazard nightmare.
I was part of a panel of co-presenters who spoke of dance, music and arts therapies. We were asked to summarize creativity in the learning process, and one statement really stuck out to me: a rationale for limiting the numbers of children in school (many children here do not have any access to school) because there are not enough seats. Both Deborah (the music therapist) and I spoke to the issue of learning as a process of creativity and development…and my comment was simple: Kids don’t need seats. They need space. And it doesn’t have to be a lot of space. Those of us who enjoyed liberal childhoods exploring safe landscapes are blessed to have known space. The space I am referring to is the space to have a place, to exist, to belong. Giving each child a place is more important than a seat. Children learn (the younger, more so) through exploration in sensation, movement and creative expression. A balance in structure and freedom is essential to healthy development. Refugee children, by definition, do not have this balance. These refugee communities who have been defined by their refugee status for as many years as the Palestinians have, deserve the right to, space for, place in, education. If there are no literal seats, the children can sit on a mat, stand up, move and play as they do in many experiential educational settings. Of course, this requires resources, and resources are scarce for the Palestinians, and also for the local Lebanese NGO’s who support them. There are many remarkable, highly educated, very intuitive, courageous people working with the Palestinians in Lebanon.
In addition to the many Palestinian communities, there are estimated to be a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Most of them live with host families or, if they have the resources, are renting homes. Many are living in the Palestinian camps. Lebanon is a tiny country; in March I wrote about the impact of increasing umbers of Syrian refugees into Jordan, which is buckling under the pressure. The same can be said for Lebanon. UNHCR is trying to meet the many needs (complex health care needs, mental health needs, basic needs), but the needs outweigh the abilities or resources of any single agency or country. Bluntly, its time for the West to ease the burden of the humanitarian crisis that is growing on a daily basis in the Middle East. I recently read that many Syrians are being denied asylum status in the European Union; there doesn’t appear to be any movement to resettle the Syrians yet. I do know there are practical considerations in any countries resettlement numbers and demographics, and, I also think there is a lot of politics and fear that determines who gets refugee status, where, and when.
Many of the Syrians prefer to go home, and are waiting to go home. But until there is a sincere and concerted effort by the global community to intervene (which I do not condone on a consistent basis) in this clearly long-term and horrific conflict, there is no home for the Syrian people to return to.
Daryl Byler, Regional Representative of The Mennonite Central Committee in Jordan visits Zataari Refugee Camp
Following their visit to the Zataari Refugee Camp, Colleague Daryl Byler, Regional Representative of The Mennonite Central Committee in Jordan, writes about the camp and its impact on Jordan, in Religion and Ethics. Click here to link to article.
It’s the first time in 4 days I’ve had a moment to step outside. I am in Amman, and spending some time in the camps on the Syrian border, to assist in the development of a staff care program for the many humanitarian responders working with the refugees fleeing Syria.
Having been indoors for several days, I am instantly inspired by the warm sun, bird songs, and call to prayer that begins to resound from some not to distant speaker. I have always loved to hear the call to prayer. I don’t understand it, but I hear the spirit. As I walk through a mostly residential area of Amman, I am struck by how peaceful and calm it feels. We are not even an hour’s drive from the border Jordan shares with Syria.
I have been to Jordan once before, as a tourist, and it can be a deceptively simple place. There is not as much obvious diversity in landscape as other places; it is a fairly new place so the architecture isn’t always as interesting as it is in some of the surrounding, older places like Damascus and Jerusalem. It can appear bland. There are some interesting nuances in the landscape, though, if one really observes well.
For instance, watching Lawrence of Arabia on the plane flight home, I saw the scene where he is almost dancing as he explores the freedom of movement his new outfit (he has been gifted with a traditional white robe) affords him. He is swooshing across a sandy landscape that is interrupted only by craggy rock mountains. If you look closely, the mostly red sand that covers the higher elevations literally stops at borders where the sand is suddenly pale beige or tawny brown. It’s a dramatic color dance within a deceptively monotone swatch of earth.
I knew instantly that this landscape is Wadi Ram, because when I was there, I was delighted to be able to collect 3 distinct colors of sand within a few feet. There are not many other places like that!
Dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, I learned much more about the true nature of Jordan.
Bedouin hospitality culture is at the root of Jordan welcoming so many refugees. In this ancient tradition, a guest arriving to your desert dwelling is offered three days of rest, food and shelter. There are approximately 2,000 refugees arriving nightly, to the Zataari camp I visited, from Syria.
Jordan is reeling from the impact of this crisis. It’s estimated that over a million refugees will flee Syria by the end of this year, if the conflict continues. They are going to Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The Zataari camp on the Jordan/Syria border only opened in July and has over 120,000 refugees now. It’s busting at the seams. While there, we saw a map of the camp and in just 6 weeks, it has increased by over 200% in size.
When we visited the camp, we spent time with families who have been in the camp since autumn. The grandmother, 88 years old, had to be carried by her son from their home in Daraa, where the revolution began. Because she has knee problems, she has a difficult time using a toilet, and needs help. In the camp, only latrines are available, and the rapid explosion of arrivals (on one night while I was there, almost 4,000 new refugees arrived) means there are not enough, and not clean enough, hygienic facilities for the refugees. Imagine having to carry an elder in your family to a filthy latrine to go to the bathroom? Most of us would consider that an affront to our dignity. It is an affront to our dignity, and this would not be tolerated in many of our communities. Yet the world falters in its promises to send the aid committed, and a handful of countries—Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey with some aid from The Saudis and other Gulf countries, support this growing community of people fleeing hell.
I cannot help but think of the response some Americans had to the increase in border crossers from Mexico, during one of the most dangerous periods of violence in border cities like Cuidad Juarez. People were waking up to dismembered bodies and missing women, and the US responded with Civilian militia patrols and a wall. This is not to question the need to manage our resources and protect our land and people; it is to suggest that the depth of hospitality and social responsibility demonstrated by a country as resource poor as Jordan might be a model for accepting the realities of a truly global community where suffering is widespread. We are connected, and as I often say when I am teaching my movement therapies for trauma classes: If you think you are here for yourself, you’re wrong. We are here for each other. That’s “rule” #1 in the post-trauma restorative process. No-one heals alone.
I am hoping to return to the Middle East several times this year to assist with this humanitarian tragedy. I encourage those of you who can to donate to organizations supporting the people of Jordan and Syria: Lutheran World Federation, The Mennonite Central Committee and UNICEF are all doing good work with very limited budgets. You can earmark your donation for the Syrian Refugee Crisis. If you do, thank you.
When I visited with the 88 year old Grandmother, we did not have common spoken language. She gestured enough to tell me that some nights, when they were in a tent (they had just moved to a much sturdier 4 walled structure provided by Lutheran World Federation) she had to endure rain or even snow falling on her. It was cold. She is a healthy woman who has never had knee problems before; now, walking is very difficult because of the pain in her joints, a consequence of those long cold nights and the hard journey to Jordan. She has never lived anywhere but Da’raa; she wants to go home. I have worked with enough elderly refugees to know that the greatest heartbreak is to not be able to finish out ones life in ones community. We of the once dominant white culture seem to hide our elders in nursing homes in the United States. In other more socio-centric cultures, they are honored, acknowledged, and listened to. They have a place.
If the predicted one million refugees from Syria really do arrive to the expanding refugee camps in surrounding countries by the end of this year, that’s a million more people than there were before this war began who have been uprooted and ripped from their place. March 15 is the two year anniversary of the start of this civil war. Some speculate it will drag on for years; some of the refugees in Zataari believe they will go home in a few weeks. They rely on news from family still there and there are reports that al-Assad is hiding in a mountain fortress, and will soon have to escape Syria if he wants to live. They hope this is true so they can return to their homes. It seems unlikely to me, but I would never utter a word that would undermine their hope.
I hope, Inshallah, that the world will match Jordans’ hospitality and commitment and find a way to support their care of the Syrian people, and that it will be sometime soon—very soon– that the 600,000 displaced Syrians can all return to their place.
Haiti & Australia
4:53 pm, 1/12/13. I am turning our car into Belvil, the quiet neighborhood, where I stay in Port au Prince. It is the precise moment when the earthquake of 2010 devastated Port au Prince 3 years ago. My friends, colleagues and I have spent most of the preceding week talking about how impossible it is that 3 years have past. As I observe the life on the streets, I see hundreds of people on cell phones, selling market wares, buying, walking and sitting while sad, thin dogs scrap for food. I muse at the thought that perhaps none of them are aware that 4:53 pm is upon us; 2 years ago, at the multiple 1 year commemorations, there were thousands of moments of silence around the country. Today, life is doing the usual, just as it was in the moment the earth opened up and shook, rolled and slammed.
I think it’s incredibly sane that life goes on. I spent most of the day being with close friends who I reached out to within minutes of my learning about the earthquake back in 2010. We talked about the elegance of how many people are in simple observation: a trip to the cemetery (or, cemeteries); visits to sites where friends and family perished; time for reflection with family. One friend shares how a dear friend of hers who lost her husband and was left alone with 3 small children, woke up, fed the children, took them to see their fathers grave, and then came home to do the very things they all loved to do together, reveling in the safety of their home. And their togetherness.
My friends son, a musician who wrote a compelling song about the beauty that is so paradoxical to Haiti’s many challenges, says “3 years already? The bruises still seem fresh”.
The song I am referring to, “Ayiti Se” (check out the official video on you tube; Ayiti Se Official Video Mikaben) celebrates everything Haiti is. There is no dwelling on what Haiti isn’t, hasn’t, or lost.
This is the spirit that showed up in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake (and so many of Haiti’s other tragedies and calamities) that so many of us labeled resiliency. It is resiliency, and; its more. One of the conversations about future projects I am engaged in, on behalf of TRI, is support for a documentary about these places, historic moments and cultural practices, that are Haiti’s ancient heart and soul. The richness of these places is available to all of us. I have other projects cooking, related to revamping Haiti’s education so that children, from a young age, are taught to appreciate their rich and diverse cultural and spiritual history (I blogged about this in 2010). While I acknowledge the importance of never forgetting this terrible tragedy, I tire of the media’s ongoing focus on what’s still going wrong. Yes, I am outraged that so much promised aid never made it, and that people are forced to live in and around rubble. It is a slander to human dignity.
And while I am deeply concerned at the erosive quality the ongoing challenges of living in poverty, rubble, and violence have on Haiti’s blood-and-spirit resiliency, I am in awe of that resiliency. Its worthy of a deep bow, and celebration. So, from now on, TRI and my personal efforts will focus on projects that bring to a world thirsty for compassion, goodness and joy; the upswings in Haiti’s current path.
This reminds me: Here is a blog I began over a month ago, and haven’t had time to finish. Its about my last visit to Australia, and changes happening there:
I have just learned that the ceremonies I have attended for the past 2 summers, with the Pitinjara, are ending. Just a week and some before 12/21/12, the last day of the Mayan Calendar (to which I have not subscribed much meaning or paid much attention). These ceremonies have been going on for over 20 years, maybe 30, as a movement to bring whites and blacks together, old (original) and new Australia, and to heal long festering wounds of racism and divisiveness and exclusivity. I don’t really think the worlds will end on 12/21/12, but I do think many indigenous teachings will emerge with some truths or revelations that the “modern” world needs to know. That’s the ceremonies are ending breaks my heart: Where will I go now? It became crystal clear to me last year, under that endless star studded sky, that ManShoun had connected me here, via my friend Annie and her Spiritual teacher, Nellie, who dreamed these ceremonies into being, so that I continued to have ceremony and women, mothers, teachers in my life. Now, contemplating the possibility that they might be all gone, I feel bereft.
But beyond me—this is so much bigger. Its a sad ending, but perhaps also signifies that those of us who shared this experience with the Aborigines have received the transmissions we are meant to receive, and we now know to (even if it’s a knowing that exists below cortical thought) what we must be prepared for in this new period we may enter after the 21st.
Again—I am not into any of the drama that has surrounded the 21st,
as I am even flying home that day. But I do think the ending of indigenous calendars, traditions and gatherings is significant. What we carry inside will matter more.
Here are some journal entries form my last time in ceremony, in Australia’s vast outback:
Sleep 5 nights in the outback and there is no doubt that Australia is the oldest land on our planet. Never mind the sharp cold at 4 am if you have to crawl out of your swag for a pee, or the intense heat and layers of dust you breathe in when its almost 100 degrees and the wind kicks up and there is no shelter. This place is heaven. Considered the heart center of Australia by many of her indigenous people, I believe the Uluru region may be the heart center for the world. And this is what, in some Aboriginal languages, the name of Australia actually is—mother land. Center , heart, navel of the world.
I have spent another 5 days in ceremony with the Pitinjara women. Once again, I can’t share the details or what we experience in ceremony. What I can share is the magic of sleeping under the thickets blanket of stars I have ever seen. On our second night, I woke up in the middle of a very dark, almost moonless night, and the Scorpio constellation (my sun sign, and I also have 4 other planets there) was perfectly aligned above the screen in my tent. I actually opened the panel to look up and make sure I wasn’t imaging this. I wasn’t. I lay back down, and looked up—-perfectly aligned, hovering in the only opening to the sky I had available to me on this coldest night, was Scorpio in the stars. That’s the kind of magic that can happen out here.
What I can also share are my thoughts and reflections about the meaning of this exchange, of 20 or so white Australians (and 2 Austrians and one American) being present for these ceremonies. It’s a reciprocal exchange. I didn’t grok that last year; I did this time. We do not do exactly the same things, for we are not allowed to do many of the things the Aboriginal woman have done for 10’s of 100’s of years. Our being present, our many acts of witness and the ongoing witness presence we provide, is a mutual reciprocal exchange. We are there to reflect back to the women the value, integrity, beauty and eternity of their traditions.
The Reciprocity is in the quality of attention we bring to this exchange, and the
mirroring is in the activities they teach us to do, with and for them.
Its not mirroring in the usual sense because it is not an exact replication. Like the concept of mirror in Vodoun, another ancient tradition, it’s the mirroring that takes place when the gathering of people who are alive — here and now — honors , acknowledges and calls up the ancestors who guided us here; and listens to the earth that always sustains us. I left feeling as if I had experienced a moment of what eternity is. It’s the continuity and ongoing tribute to the past, to our histories, her-stories, stories and ancestries, and the deep knowledge that we are just a flicker of a moment in a constant unwinding of life that will evolve in ways and depths we may not even dream (except for those who really know the dreamtime).
We are taught not in a didactic exchange but a purely energetic one, through listening and witnessing, and then reflect back for the women what we have learned.
As in many places where indigenous culture is threatened with eradication by the ongoing effects of Colonial dominance and oppression, its harder to find younger generations to carry these traditions. In no way are we, the whites who have gathered here, being taught to carry this brilliant tradition, but we are being taught to remember it. This is a mirroring of practices that still permeate all time, past, present and future. Geography and skin color do not matter.
I think I learned what matters here. It is: Listen to the earth and be danced by all the ancestors. They are the only ones who can guide us forward, in balance, love and dignity.
Haiti and The World at Large
I didn’t take the early flight from Miami to Port au Prince (“PaP”) today because I tend to not sleep when I have 5 am wake-up, and I had to teach the first day after my arrival. July is always a busy travel time between Miami and PaP as many Diaspora visit Haiti and many Haitians visit family in the US. It’s also the time of many important ceremonies d’ Vodou (Plen Du Nord, for Ogou/St. Jacques); Limonade and Lory all celebrate these as does Sodo.
I was a little irritable because of a pretty significant auto accident the week prior to my departure. I was rear ended on the interstate because the traffic came to a sudden stop. The dodge truck behind me didn’t have anywhere else to go and didn’t have time to brake enough to avoid a collision. At least he did brake because he was going fast when he saw me stopped there! I mention this incident because my immediate and subsequent response relates deeply to Haiti.
When we are initiated in Haiti, we are invited to deal directly with our fear. To enter an experience where any occurrences or events or visitors will invoke a response in us, and we are essentially training to respond with love, open awareness, and curiosity, instead of fear. When fear arises, we look at it. Observe it. Accept it. And because we are in an immense stillness and silence and spaciousness, fear has ample opportunity to dissipate.
I have had 9 previous accidents. I have endured numerous whiplashes, which have affected my back, neck, body, movement and dance (my favorite thing). I have been diagnosed with PTSD, and I am often terrified when I am a passenger in the car of an aggressive (or even assertive) driver.
I saw him coming, and I heard that unmistakable screeching of brakes. I knew I was going to be hit on a highway, by a fast moving truck, in a traffic gridlock with lots of other opportunities to crash into something. I had stopped with plenty of room between my vehicle and the one in front of me, and I was just sitting there. I had one thought: “You are a Continuum Movement Teacher. You know what to do”
Both Buddha and the Marines crossed through my consciousness because I also heard:
Don’t just sit here and take it—MOVE!!”
And, I heard: “BREATHE.”
I calculated, roughly, impact, and as soon as it was imminent, I rolled the car forward to decrease impact and I breathed—followed a big inhale with a big exhale. I figured that exhaling and releasing into the movement, and going with the movement, was better than bracing and standing still. Before I moved the car to the side to talk with the other driver, who was lovely and very concerned, I did several Luna Breaths (Continuum), which release initial shock and fear to cool the system.
I have had some pain, stiffness, and sadness since this moment, And, I “should have” been much more injured. In speaking with Emilie, who created Continuum, an ongoing body of work that began after her 5 years living and dancing in Haiti, she reminded me of the Mystery School practices (like an initiation) that we can source in these moments. There are many ways to die, literally and metaphorically, and surrendering to everything that is bigger than we are is one of them. So is letting go—which is the action of the exhale.
On to Haiti, where I am now. I am traveling the day after the Aurora movie theater shooting, which comes almost a year after the awful, cruel killing of many children in Norway. I am home from Norway only 2 weeks, and while I was there, the trial for the killer, and preparations for the one year commemoration, were ongoing.
The news is full of this most recent cold-blooded cruelty in Colorado, and I cannot help but link them in my mind.
While I was in Norway, watching the trial, I noticed one very distinct detail about the murderer: There is no light in his eyes. I’ve probably seen this before, but never focused on it because the context was probably not as horrible. After noticing this, I began to study the eyes of the Aurora shooter—and saw something similar. His eyes appear, at times, to have light, but its “dis-regulated”—either too bright; or out. I think that gives us a clue as to what’s possibly going on.
In Norway, there was extensive disagreement and discussion about the killer’s diagnosis. And I believe this is because the correct diagnosis for these two men doesn’t exist yet. We are beginning to experience the extraordinary and problematic impact of virtual worlds and virtual realities, often laced with power obsessions and violence and extreme worldviews, on young people. Actually, on all people. Just as I speculate that ADD and ADHD arise from humanities withdrawal from the soothing and equilibrating balm of the natural world; I speculate that the high frequency technologies we are exposed to, and the virtual worlds that many spend most of their days and nights in, will re-wire some brains and nervous systems in tragically disconnected ways.
My point: I journeyed to Haiti in discontent. I love Haiti and, as I have blogged before, its hard to visit these days because of the many confronting ways Haiti has changed in the wake of the earthquake. So while I am always excited to return to my hearts home, I boarded the plan this morning with a bit of an attitude.
It was only about 5 minutes after I settled that I realized that there were about 15 youth with matching missionary t-shirts surrounding me in business class (we had apparently all been upgraded). Theirs were about the 10th different missionary/save Haiti/Jesus saves Haiti t-shirt designs I had seen that morning. My irritation grew.
As I sat back and tried not to think about the blatant (though probably well-intended) disregard for Haiti’s culture and Spirit these missionary groups can sometimes represent, the computer voice began her boarding announcements. First in English, then French, then Kreyol. After the Kreyol announcement finished, the young woman in her t-shirt sitting right across the aisle from me said VERY LOUDLY to all the other students riding up front: “DID YOU ALL HEAR THAT? THAT’S A SPANISH SPEAKING PERSON, SPEAKING FRENCH.”
I pondered this for a moment, and decided I hadn’t heard that. The person next to me, a rapper from Haiti, cracked a smile.
Then: “HEY. DID YOU GUYS HEAR THAT?! THAT’S WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE WHEN A SPANISH PERSON SPEAKS FRENCH.”
I couldn’t bear it. I turned to her:
Me: “Do you know where this plane is going?”
Me: “I said, do you know where this plane is going?”
Her: “Haiti”??? (Yes, there was a question in her voice).
Me:” That’s right, Port au Prince Haiti. Where they speak Kreyol. That’s the language you were just listening to.”
“Spoken by a Kreyol speaking Haitian”.
The rapper was laughing to at this point; looking away and out the window as if he could hide his shaking. I just turned back to my reading. She was quiet for awhile but spent much of the short flight talking loudly about everything she knew.
I don’t think I need to say anymore about that unfortunate event. I hope I’ve made my point. One thing I always teach to when I am teaching about humanitarian response work: Before you go, learn as much as you can about where you are going. Learn about the original landscape—not just the natural landscape—the people, places, cultures, languages, colors, traditions, beliefs etc. etc. etc. that form the tapestry of landscape or worldview of your destination. And, be really clear about your own worldview—so you really know what it is you don’t know.
Then—imagine what your presence and being there will do to this landscape. How will it change because you were there? It always does, and one of the least helpful things any of us can ever do is walk into a landscape or environment or situation where we intend to create change, and not have considered all the ramifications (or ripples, if you will) of that change. Because if we don’t consider our impact, we may be no different than the generations of colonizers who destroyed many a culture, country, social structure, people.
Sirma, Finnmark, Norway: 71 degrees North of the Arctic Circle
This is the kind of place where you can’t take the flowers for granted. Growing season is short here—and this year, “the coldest June in 12 years”, may be shorter than usual. So much of the year the ambient colors of nature vary between shades of blue, gray, black and white. When Spring comes, the green is electric in its boldness. Life announces itself with everyone blossom, berry, shoot that pushes up through the tundra. My friend Anja and I were walking along the high tundra and found two fuzzy willow -like buds next to a series of green buds that were awaiting fertilization (the fuzzy ones were, apparently, “spent”). The call to life is so loud against the backdrop of tundra that it’s impossible to ignore. I love the lushness of the tropics, with color and scent and vibrant green everywhere. And, one can get lost in the color. Here, that’s impossible; each color invites you to notice its unique beauty.
Two days ago, we gathered (DUG) angelica root from a river at the meeting point of arctic “forest” (think tiny, thin, willowy trees) and tundra. The roots are really fierce. They take a lot of digging and strategizing to remove. Both the roots and the greens are delicious, fresh out of the earth. This is what life tastes like. I once tasted fresh cloudberries up here—and think that’s the first time I ever tasted the actual color of orange. It was bursting with the “vitaminy” fresh fruit taste that is barely present in the blander fruits sold in sterile supermarkets.
My friend Anja and I hiked yesterday and she showed me stumps of trees that were killed by a plague of beetles in 1960. That’s over 50 years ago! And, the trees have only begun to re-grow smaller trees. The stumps are now covered with gorgeous velvety moss and tiny flowers, and life is apparent—but there is not yet a “replacement” tree. “Everything is slower here. It takes time”, Anja said. “Imagine—over 50 years, and this is where the re-growth still is.”
Slow time is the pace of this quiet, still place. Dream-like slow. I often feel like I am in dream-time, or kyros, when I look out at the long voluptuous mountains that slowly roll towards the sky—everything is slower, longer, bigger. More vast and spacious even if its craggy, rocky, cold. The inhale in this earth is deep and full. The exhale is a whisper.
Being in the arctic feels like being in an altered space, and, an altered state. I sleep deeply, and dream deeply. Memories surface with a virtual clarity that is astonishing, and sometimes causes me to re-orient to where I am, upon awakening.
There are some challenges here that are not talked about elsewhere—not even, hardly, elsewhere in Norway. What has happened to the Sami people is Norway’s shadow. Like many original, indigenous inhabitants, they were pushed off their homelands and now live a silent existence to those who don’t care enough to seek them out, which is much of the rest of Norway. They were forced into boarding schools (as late as the sixties and, I think, the seventies) and given no choice but to convert, assimilate, sacrifice. Last time I was here, a debate was ongoing (again, in the North—elsewhere in Norway I didn’t hear about it, and, no-one seemed to know about it) regarding some new regulations the Norwegian Government was putting on ice fishing. This followed a series of regulations that seriously changed, and threatened, the way the Sami herd their reindeer—which is the way they have always done it. It is an issue of respect for culture and spirituality and way of life, and, it is more. It’s economic murder to limit their access to ice fishing, and land for their reindeer. The Sami, in my limited understanding of their lifestyle, really, REALLY know their reindeer. They know when to give them space and when to gather them; they know when to slaughter, when they are mating, birthing, dying. This intimate rhythm and reciprocal relationship is being threatened by challenges the government creates for a very ancient and traditional life practice.
Driving around today, I learned when the delicate white flower that precedes the coveted and very delicious cloudberry has been pollinated. This is an exciting sight—a field (swamp, actually) of bright, fresh white flowers that are suddenly bigger than they were just a little while ago (less than a day, it seems to me) announcing with a boldness nature doesn’t practice anywhere else that those berries will be “ripe for the picking” in Fall. My friend knows about cloudberry fields where the berries come earliest, and where they are lushest and most abundant, and where no-one else knows to go. As she just dropped me off at the airport, I took one look at her eyes and said “your not going right home, are you? You’re gonna look for cloudberries.”
I was right. And I suspect she’s doing just that as I write.
Haiti, New Mexico, Iraq
I have not blogged in awhile, despite visits to Australia and Haiti, and an amazing Haiti-focused teaching residency at my alma mater, Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. I’ve been retreating from the computer so as to give myself a break from the inundation of technology that has overcome so many of our lives.
A friend recently told me that I should blog more; that the interactions and teachings and experiences that comprise these travels are interesting and useful to read. As much time as I—and many of us, I suspect—must spend at a computer, I find it difficult to sit down and write or type anything I don’t have to.
In this time away from technology, I taught several Continuum workshops in Australia, and trained the mental health team at The Sant Siko Twama in Port au Prince in Part 2 of Restorative Movement Psychotherapy. There is much to share from these experiences, but something here—closer to home—has spurred me to resume my writing.
I am privileged to know many of members of our resettled refugee community. Recently, a lively, sensitive and kind 16 year old boy from Iraq was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of leukemia. He went from contemplating his future, playing football and planning for summer break to laying in a hospital bed for an unknown period of time to receive 3 daily and very intense treatments of chemotherapy. This form of leukemia is known to come from some sort of gas exposure. On a recent visit, I asked him if he had any idea what form of Leukemia he had. In response, he shared the questions he was asked about gas exposure (none of which were true for him), and so I asked him if it was possible he was exposed to something equally toxic back home—in Baghdad. He looked at me, his eyes demonstrating that he had thought of this, too. “You mean the bombs”?
“Yes”, I replied.
“Yeah, I think it’s the bombs.”
So do I.
Obviously, I don’t know. I do know that after the war in the former Yugoslavia, some of the UN soldiers developed leukemia and there was a question about exposure to depleted uranium. I do know there are reports of increased rates of leukemia in Basra, in the past 15 years.
The bombs that fell on Iraq were American bombs. Bombs all of our tax dollars pay for. Bombs I have opposed theoretically—and vocally in my April 15 payments to the IRS; in letters accompanying my checks that say I DO NOT WANT MY TAXES TO PAY FOR ANY MORE BOMBS.
These bombs, which we all pay for, may kill this child. This may not seem a big deal to many people in the US—casualty of war; just one Iraqi child; people die of cancer every day. I don’t know enough about cancer to know what’s preventable; I do know that what appears to be an increase in cancer is, in my mind, an outcome of increased toxicity and scarcity of healthy air, food, water in our environment. Its also the toxicity of speed that impacts our wellbeing—hence my pulling away from computers, sometimes.
I have been reviewing old files in an effort to clean out a crowded office, and recently came across an old article that described how Italy asked the UN to investigate the effects of depleted uranium on humans—because several of their soldiers, deployed as peacekeepers to Bosnia-Herzegovina, had developed leukemia. I was once warned about my proximity to recently made bomb craters while in Kosovo in 2000, because of rumors that depleted uranium was used in those bombs. This is not a new issue, but its one that has not yet drawn the attention it merits.
I spoke with the young mans mother today, and she described herself as “crazy” with questions. One of her questions: “Why didn’t we buy bottled water everyday?”
The grief and distress I hear in her voice is palpable. Her son was asymptomatic; the news, delivered barely 2 weeks ago, is still a shock. For me, its unimaginable. I have written many times about the ongoing tragedy and cruelty of war; a dear friend wrote a book called “When the War Came Home”, and this title is perhaps the most apt verbiage to describe why we cannot continue to pretend that wars in far away places don’t matter here at home. Wars do come home with everyone who fought or fled them; they also come home with those of us who work with the aftermath of war.
Robert Bales is a US solider who was deployed too many times, especially given that he was known to suffer from a traumatic brain injury. This is cruel. Its immoral. His actions are deplorable, and, he was trained not only to defend and protect, but also to kill when necessary. The line we call “necessary” from the comfort of our homes is not the same line one sees in the midst of combat. War changes perception, and multiple deployments changes everything about how we see the world. We know this, yet we continue to ignore it.
About a month ago, I learned of a VA employee who worked in the area of staff support being murdered by her husband, a soldier returned from multiple deployments. She was working on contracts to create retreats for returned soldiers and their caregivers. In my work with refugees, I refer at least one Iraqi refugee a month to testing for traumatic brain injury from exposure to IED explosions or suicide bombers. Many of the refugee communities coming to the US endure communal fragmentation, increases in violent behavior, severe isolation and loneliness. The point is, war does not stay in the countries it occurs in; it follows civilians and soldiers home; it disrupts our moral and social bonds; and it undermines all of our safety and security.
And no one is to blame but us. Not the government, not the military, not the soldiers or refugees—all of us. Because we continue to look away, and then blame and scapegoat, or worse yet, ignore it, when something happens.
Around the same time that Robert Bales story came out, so did Trayvon Martins. His death is horrible, inexcusable, and wrong. I am grateful at all the attention his tragic death has been given; at the multiple acts of defiance and solidarity in his name; at the mobilization for justice and accountability that his cruel and blatantly wrong death catalyzed. It stands in stark contrast to the silence around what went wrong that caused Robert Bales to go berserk, as soldiers are known sometimes to do. Its tragic that the truths his situation exposes are ignored; that there is no mobilizations to demand a halt to multiple deployments of our troops and a complete stop to deployment of soldiers with TBI.
When the war comes home, we all suffer, and we are all responsible.
Back to Haiti—a place that has also known violence, and continues to fragment since the 2010 earthquake broke her capital city–the Poto Mitan (“Center Post”) of the land and people— wide open. When I was just there, I was grateful to note some improvements in roads, electricity, and in people’s sense of hope for the future. I also noted a continued frustration with the lack of progress promised by the international community, and an increasing tension that the presence of so many foreigners is ongoing and without proportionally reciprocal improvement. Many Haitians still refer to the mass “insodus” as The Invasion of The Aliens, and I am still slightly amused and really annoyed when I hear of yet another group of “expert” expatriates—experts in mental health, experts in trauma, experts in community building—who are planning to bring their expertise to Haiti. This perpetuates colonialism. It may even, in some contexts, be a form of occupation. We ignore or judge the societal dynamics that keep the wars going at home, and that hurt people we care about. We sometimes also export our ideas, opinions, expertise to other peoples homes, imposing our ways of living and being in places that have their own practices for healing, restoration, community and creation. I am not suggesting that everything we share is wrong—after large scale natural or human-made disasters, showing up to help is necessary. Its also necessary to show up and practice deep listening, with awareness of our own agendas and worldviews, so that we contribute meaningfully to local needs and people. My dear teacher Anngwyn St. Just calls this the ability to SHOW UP, SHUT UP AND GET WHATS GOING ON. That pretty much sums it up.
I have been thinking a lot about violence lately. About how violence isn’t just the blatant physical assault of another person or people; about how we may engage in acts of violence also by perpetuating, proselytizing, imposing, judging, and perhaps the most harmful violence of all, ignoring, and ignorance. Another former teacher once asked a class I was in to consider all the ways we commit violence to ourselves, and it was mind-opening to consider that being in so much of a hurry that we forget to eat–to nourish our own bodies–is considered by some to be part of a continuum of violence.
How many ways do we commit acts of violence in our own lives? Maybe thats a good place for all of us to begin.
Georgia, September-October 2011
Georgia is not a place I ever thought about visiting. I knew very, very little about it, before my current trip here.
Georgia is stunning. Its ancient. It has an air of mystery despite the warmth and openness to share of the people. Often thought of as a “former Soviet state”–it is actually a country with one of the oldest languages on earth (remnants of it only found here, and in Palestine) , some of the finest cuisine and wines, and gorgeous landscapes. In a space the size of Switzerland, Georgia’s terrain encompasses strong snowy mountains, river filled green valleys, ancient virgin forested slopes for hiking and skiing, lovely wine country with rolling hills and long views of yellow, gold and green impressionistic landscapes, remnants of ancient cave communities with intricate temple artwork (and whole icon-covered cathedrals carved into mountain sides, so ancient people could cleverly live in safety), and the wide open eery darkness of the black sea. Georgian art is underrepresented in this world. Gold and silver smithing, with unique forms of inlay (ceramic and stone) represent a lost art that many modern artists are studying in order to re-create it.
I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable and beautiful Georgia is.
The people arrived from long histories as Persians, Europeans, Turks, and Roman. There isn’t a typical Georgian (at least, to my eyes). Bordering Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and Russia, peoples faces, body types, movement and style are truly very diverse. The dance reminds me of ancient Persian temple dance–its energetic, and fluid. The costuming reminds of Gurdjieff. The art has many flavors. I am not knowledgeable about art, but can recognize basic types. One artists display includes abstract, impressionism, realist. There is depth in everything here.
There is also a dark underbelly. We were in several border towns, and the shadow was apparent. There is something palpable in communities that bare the truth of human rights abuses, drug trafficking, crimes. They feel stifling. People glare at outsiders. It feels dirty. There is no projection in my interpretation of this place–it was pretty obvious. I have a colleague who has been in Georgian prisons, and describes them as some of the most horrific places on earth. There is a a significant amount of torture that occurs here. This darkness was palpable, under the surface of beauty and tradition. The darkness is part of the depth.
One of the endearing things about Georgia is the people. I knew so little about their tragic, occupation-laden, proudly resistant history and culture. During the Bolshevik Revolution, most of the aristocracy, artists, and intellects were massacred. Georgian people have survived numerous attempts to destroy all traces of their rich, colorful, brilliant history. I wonder how many generations it takes to recover from such massive social losses? I have a very difficult time accepting this cruelty, a cruelty that wills to destroy an entire society. Of course, this has happened many times in human history. It doesn’t surprise me. But it always stuns me. And amazes me when it reveals the strength of the spirit to not only survive–but also to shine.
Australia, Red Earth, 2011
I love Australia. Its hard to be precise in my description of why I am so enamored of this far away place; a specific example might illuminate.
When I landed in Melbourne after the l-o-n-g flight, I had to go through customs/quarantine because I had revealed I was carrying food (sports bars, for the outback). This was no big deal, and I have found its always best to claim these things because they are usually ok, and not claiming them can be expensive. As I put all my bags through the X-ray machine, I asked if I should remove my coat, to send through. The response “Heck, no mate–I haven’t known you long enough.” Cheeky humor is one of the reasons I love Australia (and, Australians).
I came to Australia to participate in ceremony with the women of the Pitjantjatjara group of Aborigines. As we are asked not to photograph, journal, or in any way, document and share what we witnessed, I won’t.
What I will do in this blog is share my impressions of being on the red earth of Australia for 5 days with these beautiful women.
The preparation for my time with them was chock full of surprises. The morning I was to be picked up for the journey into the red center, I took a few minutes to jump in the deliciously cold pool at the Outback Pioneer Lodge and Campground. As I was drying off poolside, I saw the chubbiest, fluffiest steely blue-gray chicken-like bird I have ever seen. I have no idea what kind of bird it was, and no-one I’ve described it too does, either.
As I watched the bird strut around a low to the ground sprinkler system that was misting the grass, I could have sworn the bird was checking myself and another woman sitting near me out. S/he kept looking around as if to make sure ‘the coast was clear.”
Then, the bird did the funniest thing I have ever seen a wild animal do. It strolled nonchalantly up to the sprinkler, and raised its right wing, as if to spritz its pits. Then it took a walk around, shimmied a little, and did the same on the left side.
The woman and I looked at each other at the same time. She said “Did you see that”? She was Australian and had no idea what kind of bird it was. A very clever one, I think (its very hot in the center).
As I was waiting to be picked up, I was staring into the parking lot for the lodge, and suddenly, out of the scanty bush, appeared two birds embroiled in a mating ritual. The male was dancing around the female with a wide display of glorious bold blue feather, spread like a majestic card deck. The woman kept him on his feet, hopping and strutting to initiate an even finer display. Pretty amazing stuff to see in a parking lot!
Then, the red earth. The Aborigines have for years honored and heard this earth; danced her with their feet and sung her with their voices.
40,000 or 10,000 or 5,000 years old—the tradition is not written and is meant to be remembered in our bones. My fear is that enough young people won’t show up to learn and know and preserve this ancient tradition. This is happening in many indigenous cultures. For this reason I will return again and again, to serve as witness.
The heat during the day and the cold at night were intense. My love of, fascination for, and fear of, Australia’s many lethally venomous snakes, was a challenge to “sit with” while standing, sitting, sleeping in the open, under the stars, on the land.
I was told they were not a concern—it was too cold for them to be out at night. And then, I was told it is not unknown that a snake will slither into a sleeping bag, tucked against a warm body, at night (or during the day). Instructions: If you are in your sleeping bag with a snake, don’t move. Wait, wait, and wait as long as it takes for it to leave on its own. Now that’s a practice.
There are more stars than sky. They are everywhere. A double thick blanket of light, especially the milky way, which I have hardly seen since I was a child. And I have never seen it this boldly expressed.Every other second, it seems, a shooting star –the remnant of something born millions of years ago, long gone, its light only now reaching the earth. The Aborigines know these stars intimately.
Voices. Wind. Snake trail in the red sand. How old is this earth?
Questions as I yield into her for 5 days:
Do we humans leave imprints? A brief flash-bulb memory, seen by a few sets of eyes, many many years later, like the stars?
Will the earth remember our footsteps?
Do bone and earth communicate; creating a dialogue that might become a permanent part of the history in the places we touch, lay on, walk on or squat on?
How do we become part of the earth’s story here? What holds the memory of us, individually and collectively?
Port au Prince, Haiti, March 8-15, 2011
I’ve returned to provide training in somatic and creative arts approaches to my beloved friends/colleagues at Haiti’s Psycho Trauma Center. We have talked about, and dreamed about, this for years. Finally, some funds raised through my non-profit enable us doing this.
Post-earthquake Haiti hasn’t changed much—still. Yes, there’s a little more rubble removed and evidence of new construction here and there. But really, not much change. Not as much as one would hope for—and would surely find elsewhere (i.e if the same were to occur in Hollywood or Dallas or Fairfield Country CT). Even I realized after 3 days that I was no longer seeing the rubble. Shortly after the earthquake that’s all I saw. Now, it seemed to take a much more conscious effort to really see the piles of rubble that still remain (and many do) and to realize how far Haiti has to go.
Why is it so easy to forget Haiti? This is a place, after all, that defeated a significant and formidable colonial force in the early eighteen hundreds and that subsequently forbid whites from owning land or from taking control. I believe Haiti has long been perceived as a frightening place by the US and European nations who engaged (and engage, still) in colonial domination over this Caribbean nation. So we at once neglect and ignore, but still manage to control, Haiti. Perhaps it’s the neglect that controls. I don’t know. I find politics tedious, and prefer to put my energy into people.But I do know that the resilience I have always loved in the Haitian people, may be beginning to erode. In some, in those still living in makeshift camps with barely passable tent like structures, resilience is beginning to harden—to look like pure survival. Which somehow seems to have less humanity in it.
I am not saying there is no resilience, none of that gracious heart that many of us who love Haiti associate with her. In fact, during this training—which emphasized strengths and resources in the therapeutic a process (basic in many trainings and educations—not as widely talked about in the more traditional, old fashioned, theory heavy and practice deficit psychology training available at the local university) I witnessed some amazing breakthroughs or illuminations in my colleagues. These breakthroughs had to do with the moment someone realized how rich Haitian culture is—and hot that richness offers so much for healing, restorative processes, pride, forward movement and development. I may have blogged last year about how sad it makes me every time I hear (and I hear this a lot): “You know more than I/we do about Vodou. About our dancing. Our drumming. Our history from a cultural/spiritual perspective.” I have begun asking how many members of a training have ever been to Bwa Cayman. Always , the hands up = 0-3, maximum. Some don’t know what that place is.
Once when training the national police they asked me if Vodou could be a resource, and why was it kept so invisible to so many Haitians? I have been asked that by street children, by those who care for street children, by psychologists, by HR mangers. Always, the trainings I facilitate somehow end up including a lively discussion of culture and spirit in Haiti—not limited to Vodou, but that does seem to be an “elephant in the room”. I am not sure it’s my place to answer these questions, yet always—someone asks. What do you think? What do you know? What’s does this mean? How does this relate to what we are doing here?
I made a comment in this training:If I were to run for president of Haiti I know of 2 important platforms I would endorse:
1.All education would be free, and it would include a strong curriculum of history, culture and spirit—one that teaches at least the principles of Haitian mythology, dance, arts, drum, and that is intended to install pride in all Haitian people.That this does not occur now is, for me, part of that blatant yet subversive colonial neglect that still permeates Haiti. Who doesn’t’ want the core of resilience in this island to be known, not just for Haiti—but for the world? We could all learn from this.
2.Kreyol and English would be the national languages (in that order). French is a lovely and historically valuable language and could still be learned. But Haitians would have much more employment potential if they learned to speak English. Usually I don’t endorse everyone learning English—that has its own colonial heritage and message. But here, so close to our shores and so controlled by—played, used by and neglected by — the US, Haitians should speak English, after Kreyol. Kreyol is beautiful and is a vestige of the rich history and culture I have already written about. English affords the people here possibilities that would really, truly foster development—Haiti centric development.
Several of my students thanked me for the “revolutions” they had in their thinking about their work with survivors of trauma (and these are clinicians I deeply respect, who are also my teachers and heroes). The revolutions: The use ofcultural resources in therapeutic process, or restorative process, or healing—however its called. The place of Haiti’s history and cultural/spiritual depth in this resourcing. The power of utilizing the very Haiti centric rhythms and movements that in the words of one student “the missionaries taught us to fear”, are the core of their resilience—personal resilience, corporeal resilience, psychological resilience, collective resilience, spiritual resilience.
I know I wrote that the world can learn resilience from Haiti. That they should be granted the honor of masters of resilience after what they taught us following the 1/12/2010 earthquake. As Japans horror unfolds, I heard many of my Haitian colleagues wish aloud that they could go and help.I hope they can, and my next mission is to try and find a connection for them to do this. The context, the geography, the language,the history and culture are different— and are formulated and expressed very distinctly.The heart of healing is in the blood and spirit-level resilience that is integral to both.
As one of my most respected and beloved teachers always use to say (and what I would say to the world, if I had a moment to do so):Show up, shut up, and get what’s going on.
N’Djamena, Chad, February 2011
The airport in Chad is trees. Much of the rest of the country is desert—but landing and leaving, there are trees. A few minute after landing, and getting off the bus that transports us from the plane to the airport, one smells jasmine—on of the most divine smells there is. One jasmine tree graces the door that is both entrance to and departure from the airport.
The only way to describe my first, sensory and visceral impressions of Chad is:: Heat. Weight. Breeze. Feels like Chad. I had no idea what to expect, and, like many people who I talk to, knew very little about Chad. There’s a lot of surprise.
I expected a hot dry place. It was hot, and hotter each day (98 F when we arrived; 110F a week later).It’s dry, but the hotel room was humid.If the door to the balcony remains open for more than a few minutes, many, many bugs infest the room. All sorts of bugs, large and small, huge and tiny, winged, colorful, stingy…..its quite awesome.
As is the fluidity of movement and life there—much like Sudan. Long white robes, immaculately shaped turbans atop elegant faces, brightly colored dresses, open sandy earth, trees that arc in shape, and when the wind blows. I didn’t see any camels, but one can see how perfect they fit there.
One of my first questions after arrival was “What’s across the river?” Our hotel sits on the banks of a lovely river—the river Chari, I later learned. Turns out its Cameroon on the other side. I didn’t believe my colleague when he told me this, at first. “Cameroon—that’s West Africa!” But Chad is the heart of Africa, and so it touches North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, and East Africa—or at east it touches countries from, or right at,those regions.
Our workshop (same project that took me to Sudan in December) went well. Similar glitches and bumps to start—logistical challenges—but after 4 days, an amazing process with mostly national and a few expatriate humanitarian workers who spend time in some of the world’s most difficult places—Darfur, the border of Niger, N’Djamena itself—long known to be a hardship post.
Despite all this, the elegance of the people and their hearts dominates my impression of this crossroads of Africa—the true center, the heart.Watching the movement of the river, many dugout type boats cross daily. I wanted to cross, too, but was told that, despite the sleepy appearance of the village across the river—there were border guards, and they would deport me if I didn’t have a visa. The bird and animal life is rich—colorful lizards of all sizes; herons, storks, tiny song birds—its very peaceful to lay by the hotel pool and watch the river, the village, the magnificent birds fly overhead.
There is a contrast—we were not allowed to leave the hotel (lock down, essentially) w/o escort. The streets seem dead. On the one day we went to a market (close by but we were not permitted to walk) there were people on the street. But very few, for a capital city. This might perhaps be a consequence of the war in February 2008 that was fought right here (and that resulted in the President cutting down ancient trees so that there was less camouflage for invaders).At night, there is no-one—NO-ONE—on the streets. It’s eerily dead. I never got a concrete answer to my inquiries as to why. I did, once, ask (in response to the events in Egypt and Libya, and also Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Jordan which were breaking news the whole time I was there) if it might happen here, in Chad. The response: It would be squashed, immediately.Perhaps that is why the streets are empty.
I came to Chad knowing little and left knowing more—but still, very little. There is a quiet and a peace here, which is in stark contrast to some underlying layers of tension, or repression, or oppression—or maybe all of it. When we left, we were actually threatened with being detained at the hotel (which means law enforcement, and being detained from actually leaving the country) because our employing organization had not fully paid the bill (which we were not able to do) and had not sent the reference number for the funds supposedly transferred and in route. This was no joke—the hotel staff went from friendly and open, to stern to an extent that was creepy.Phone calls were made. We called our local support, who settled the situation and who whisked us out of there quickly, with barely any time to pack, and escorted us to the airport (not originally planned) to make sure we could leave.
At the time, it seemed stressful. For days afterward, I was unsettled and fretful. Couldn’t sleep for a few days. Realized in a visceral way how delicate our safety and security is when we are deployed in any capacity, really. I’ve worked in the front lines of the field, and in the consultancies that take place at nice hotels (like this one). There are clear risks associated with front lines work, and, there are always risks.I think sometimes we (perhaps I am referencing Westerners, or more specifically Americans, abroad—perhaps the whole of humanitarian workers)—operate in an illusion of impunity from harm. Even when I was in Darfur I didn’t feel unsafe, except during one specific event (an ambush that occurred very nearby).I was working in one of the most insecure environments that exists—but I didn’t feel unsafe. And that’s good—feeling safe is essential to do our work. Its also important to remember that safety is a fragile and mutable thing.
Port au Prince Day 6, January 2011
Just as I was beginning to write a final blog for this visit, a friend called who I hadn’t seen since the earthquake, and asked me to meet. So I hastily prepared to go out. As he was pulling in the drive way the news broke that “Baby Doc” had just returned to Haiti. This was no rumor—my friends and I got it directly from the Haitian National Police—and within moments, the city seemed to urge with energy, excitement, fear, uncertainty, speculation and “surreality”.
I don’t now what this means. No-one does, right now. His press conference was supposedly taking place as we taxied down the runway. I’m sure I’ll hear something later.
My gut? Preval, who openly rejected the OAS and international Community decision that the elections were fraudulent and that he must step down and abide by the Constitution, is giving the finger to the International Community. The response in Haiti was mixed—some people were actually elated, believing that if “Baby Doc” is there to stay, order might return. It’s probably true—but at what cost? The question has to be asked.
There are also rumors (and, I think,not rumors—probably fact) that Aristide has also had his passport renewed and will return soon. Surely the Lavalas will be in the streets demanding this, soon.
One good friend asked me what this means for the country, and for the people. Again—I don’t know—but I don’t think its good.
I don’t think its good because the level of complete surprise my friends and colleagues expressed (and many of them are well connected and networked) created a level of shock that was only beginning to be realized this morning. How much shock can any community withstand?
Not good, because it seems to be another example of how absolute power can corrupt, absolutely. Not good, because Haitians disagree so deeply on what this means, whether its right or wrong, that I –as we were driving through some of the worst traffic I have ever seen to get to the airport this morning—listening to a local news station talk about how Haiti could only “avanse” (advance) if all Haitians sat down, together—realized that this coming together, at least now, is frankly impossible.
It won’t happen.
It won’t happen because too many Haitians are too uneducated and impoverished to make their needs and wants known to those educated, wealthy, or even just middle class Haitians (not to mention those governing the country)in a way that they’ll hear–and those who have the luxury of education and money and some things that are really basic human needs and rights—-can afford not to listen. When people are at risk, our natural response is to protect ourselves, to find safety —its human nature. So the rift between poor and rich, educated and uneducated, powerful and powerless, increases when the risk is greater for everyone.
There is no judgment, on my part, in what I am writing. When I realized this, this morning, it was a moment of absolute crystal clarity. Not good or bad, right or wrong—just clear. Its simply impossible now for Haitians to come together, be together, and create their unified national future.
This does make me sad. I was one of those who perhaps naively believed that the potential silver lining of the earthquake was a new Haiti. When things all fall down, it can sometimes be easier to rebuild, wholly anew.
Instead, the layers of deception, corruption,“surreality”, confusion, chaos, and frankly filthy, tragic reality deepen and complexify. No-one should live like the majority of the Haitians are living. Its inexcusable. I am tired of hearing that the money cannot be released due to the political situation—people are hungry, thirsty, sick, dying. There has to be a way to at least provide the most basic human needs, and create some semblance of a structure that supports humanity, while the machinations of the powerful play themselves out (or, play themselves in).
Haiti is tired. Her resiliency is being stretched beyond reasonable capacity.I love Haiti, deeply, and I was really relieved to depart today. Usually, I am sad; I want to stay. I am too tired after 2010 to go through too much more heartbreak and horror and chaotic uncertainty in Haiti. And I was only scratched at surface level, compared to those who actually survived the earthquake (and the years of violence, flooding, storms etc.) and continue to try and live amidst massive piles of rubble, still filled with death;cholera; lack of the most basic things; unbearable traffic jams due to an excess of people, still congested roads that haven’t been fixed, overflowing port-a-potties at most camps, and misery. Haiti is a place that is filled with misery.
Port au Prince January 12, 2011
This morning was characteristically fresh in Port au Prince. December and January are crisp, cool months, and there tends to be an energy of hope in this Caribbean nation after the holidays.
I awoke to the sound of singing, chanting prayer. Already at 6:45 am, the air was music.
It is hard to delineate the mood here. Since my arrival yesterday, I have tapped into somber, sad, joyful, hopeful, tragic, ecstatic, and more.As I drove through Port au Prince, en route to a commemoration ceremony with my dear friends from The Psycho Trauma Program, I see some people working, as if its any other day. I see others singing and wringing their hands, skyward. I see people praying. I see others just sitting.
The ceremony is lovely. We light 3 candles:For those we lost, for Haiti, and for hope—for the “biggest” future possibilities we can imagine. We let a hundred or so white balloons fly into the universe, free. With these balloons, we liberate hope.
I still believe the world has let Haiti down. Clearly, there are many points of suffering in the world today, and there is much—too much—to do.Haiti was not the only tragedy of 2010. However, promises were made—promises of funds from wealthy nations that never appeared.Promises to do more than just show up, once, and make promises.
While I deeply believe that Haiti’s healing must be guided by her own hands and hearts, this process will take nurturing from places and people who have not lost infrastructure and resources and so very many lives.And who have economic infrastructure and a few resources to share. The nurturing has only appeared in small batches, in a few of us who are willing to show up again and again, without our own agenda. And, from a few significant funding sources—like the Clinton Bush initiative—who seem to quietly keep their promises.
The night is quiet. Still, even. Cicadas and crickets, a few other croaking or chirping creatures, are night song. Remembrance for souls who departed rapidly, violently, crushed by the weight of poverty induced shoddy construction and lack of ——everything. Crushed by the reality of living in and with poverty. No escape route.
Dear souls, fly. After one year of bardo, of limbo, of dancing in that at once chaotic and wide open liminal space—-fly.The place you left, home, is gone. Forever gone. There is not the same place to come back to. Perhaps your wings can help Haiti lift out of the debris and the disappointment and begin to “rise herself up” again.
For a list of Amber’s older publications, click here.