Monday, April 07, 2014

Visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda: Underneath, We're All the Same

Roses on mass graves. Skulls encased in glass.  Stories of children brutally murdered. I don’t wonder that I stopped writing about my experience at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda– unable to put into words my experience. The body memory of my panic attack there just resurfaced, as I write – my heart raced and skipped for about 20 seconds. If I’m at a loss, what must it be for the survivors? For Jack, our host and guide for the day, whose life was forever changed by the genocide. When he was only 9, Jack became a father figure to his younger siblings when their parents were killed in their village outside Kigali.

Kigali is a beautiful city today.  After over two weeks in eastern Congo, without running water, paved roads, or the freedom to be out after sunset, my friend Cate and I marveled at walking to restaurants, reveling in street lights and hot, running water.  A cosmopolitan city of ex-pats and ambassadors, we had the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten. We dined outdoors at a restaurant where we could purchase beautiful, hand-woven bowls made by women entrepreneurs. We took hot showers.  We heard of how the outlying poverty was masked by the sheen of prosperity in the city center. We visited the villages off the paved paths, delivering groceries to a woman with AIDS, wrapped in a blanket and seated on the couch, unable to move without help. She welcomed us with a warm smile that washed over her wasted body.

Jack was a friend of Gunilla, a Swedish woman we met in Bukavu, who works with victims of trauma in Rwanda and Congo.  Jack had agreed to take us to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, a center dedicated to the history of Rwanda, the events leading to the 1994 genocide, and the physical evidence of the atrocities. The center and its grounds and gardens stand guard above a burial site with over 250,000 victims of the killings.  Not your typical tourist destination, but in a city was destroyed by savage, brutal, mass killings, where rivers ran thick with bodies and blood, yet now functions with an air of security and progress, it is crucial to remember the decisions, divisions, and power structures put into play that started a system which bred the level of inhuman violence seen here.  To speak the unspeakable, to own responsibility, as world leaders later did, admitting to standing by. Owning it, so it might never happen again.

Gunilla asked Jack once more if the visit would be too much, and Jack, easy-going with a ready smile, told us he would step outside if it was.

After a brief stop at the Hôtel des Mille Collines, the site of “Hotel Rwanda,” where we watched the wealthy lounge by the beautiful pool, and checked in with our airline at their office attached to the spacious, air-conditioned lobby, we phoned a friend of Jack’s, who operated a taxi, and drove to the Genocide Memorial, perched near the top of the opposite hillside.  We parked next to a large bus, one of the only vehicles in the lot, with a group of Muzungus (white people) sitting beside it, eating a picnic lunch. 

At the entrance to the center, we met a short, slight man, a friend Gunilla had met when she held a Trauma Tapping Therapy (TTT) training at the memorial. He spoke to us in Kinyarwanda, and Jack translated his hopeful report, on how much TTT had helped the people Gunilla had worked with. 

The center is free, though you can pay for an audio guide, but we had Jack, whose guidance was more personal and detailed than anything you could pay for or read. Entering downstairs, the dark stone hall was cool, and lined with back-lit photo exhibits ranging from pre-colonial days to describing the white man’s decision to change what were flexible, socio-economic labels of Hutu and Tutsi into strict ethnic groups, requiring ID cards to be carried at all times.

We watched videos of survivors speaking of their experiences of gacaca tribunes, traditional community trials of restorative justice adjusted to present-day needs to bring local perpetrators to justice.

We read about the use of rape, torture, and the spread of HIV/AIDS to humiliate and eradicate the Tutsis. We saw the commonly used weapons: machetes, clubs, and guns.

We sat silent in a circular room lined with 5x7 photos of loved ones lost. There was a round of beautiful wooden sculptures, soft and supple lines illustrating life before the genocide, leading to shapes depicting death and rape.

The clothes found with victims were hung in cases; a worn, cotton Superman bed-sheet in its familiar blues and red stretched between a torn pair of pants and a shirt.

Walking upstairs, the rooms held a brief pictorial history of other genocides: The German Holocaust to exterminate the Jews, the Cambodian killing fields, the Armenian genocide, photos, videos and facts from Bosnia and Kosovo. 

My heart started racing.  I’d lived in Kosovo twice before, for a couple months at a time. I’d met the people who were still mourning loved ones, never found, never identified. I’d heard stories of how men had terrorized my friends, wearing masks so as not to be identified as the neighbor from across the street.  The photos of refugees streaming from their homes reminded me of a friend who carried a photo with him that he took as he left his village, the homes on fire and smoke rising into the sky. 

It was overwhelming. And it was hot. There was very little air flow, and I stepped into the bathroom to splash water on my face.  There was no running water. We continued to the next room, where poster-sized photos of young children hung above plaques stating their names, ages (4, 7, 10), their favorite foods (cheese, eggs, chocolate), their personality traits (gregarious, shy), and exactly how they were tortured and killed.

It was too much.  I started to cry and excused myself, losing control of my tears, my heart-rate, my breathing. Gunilla followed me, and led me out to a balcony, where we stood for a few minutes, overlooking the grounds in silence, until fat drops of rain started to fall, breaking up the heavy humidity of the day.  Going back inside, Jack led us to another room filled with chairs. I sat looking out a large window with a view of the streets, buildings, and people Kigali, unable to stop sobbing, unable to erase the photos of children who had been brutally slaughtered. 

I want my heart to break over this. My heart should break, to know what is worth standing for, fighting for. But it’s too much. Too much for survivors, traumatized children, living a lifetime with nightmares of memories most of us cannot fathom.

Gunilla held me, lightly massaging my shoulders and neck. Cate squeezed my hand, offering me tissue and her bottle of water. Local women, workers taking their break? visitors to their relative’s grave-site? stared at me.

Leaving, we passed through the lobby, and walked out toward the gardens, overgrown green covering the mass graves. Buying roses, we walked under a long trellis of greens, large cement slabs to our left acting as one continuous tombstone. We laid the roses down, to honor those buried below.  The rain had stopped, and we spoke of birds flying overhead, their long wingspan and beaks uttering a whining cry. 

Inside, there was a room filled with skulls of the victims. It was macabre.  But looking at the collection, the story was clear. You couldn’t tell.  You couldn’t tell if one was a Hutu or Tutsi, Jewish or Christian, Cambodian, Armenian, Serb or Albanian. Underneath, we’re all the same.  

(Photo: The Atlantic)

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Relationship Tips: Strap on the Shock Collar

So.  The long-distance relationship for (maybe more than?) 6 months, that I knew would test me and try us and SUCK?  It does. He's off having new adventures, meeting new people. Which I love. I want him to live live at the edge, fully.  I'm at home.  (Meeting new people, because that's how I roll, but still.  It's all in the security of home.)

I don't recommend it, this long-distance trial.  Except?  For the fact that it's brought up all kinds of my stuff that I need to deal with. As the boyfriend noted from a piece that hits me in my soft, vulnerable underbelly:  "A partner who challenges you is someone who can bring you directly to the highest aspect of yourself. They will directly show you where all of the hidden shadows and aspects of yourself you are running away from so that they can be liberated from the illusions and false beliefs that lie dormant inside of you." (Monica Loren)

In The Untethered Soul,  Singer writes about constantly going "beyond."  "When you constantly go beyond yourself, there are no more limitations. ... Limitations and boundaries only exist at the places where you stop going beyond. If you never stop, then you go beyond boundaries, beyond limitations, beyond the sense of a restricted self."

Singer offers the metaphor of a dog in a shock collar, bound to a yard by an invisible electric fence.  If, instead of running away in fear from the pain of the shock, the dog can ever so slowly build tolerance to the discomfort, sit in the amount of pain, she can eventually inch forward, break through, and be free.

I say "she", because I am the dog.

... "To go beyond, you must keep going past the limits that you put on things. This requires changes at the core of your being. Right now you are using your analytical mind to break the world up into individual thought objects. You are then using the same mind to put these discrete thoughts together in a defined relationship to each other. You do this as an attempt to feel a semblance of control. This is seen mostly clearly in your constant attempt to make the unknown known. ...(examples of daily if this, then that - 'Jennifer will want to go on a hike with me on my day off.  And if I need another day off, Tom won't mind covering for me, after all, I covered for him....)  You have it all figured out."

(Stop writing directly to me, Michael A. Singer. It's awkward for your other readers to feel left out.)

"You know how everything is supposed to be, even the future. Your views, your opinions, your preferences, your concepts, your goals, and your beliefs are all ways of bringing the infinite universe down to the finite where you can feel a sense of control. Since the analytical mind cannot handle the infinite, you created an alternate reality of finite thoughts that can remain fixed within your mind. This mental model has become your reality. You must now struggle day and night to make the world fit your model, and you label everything that doesn't fit as wrong, bad, or unfair."

..."In order to truly go beyond your model, you must first understand why you built it. The easiest way to understand this is to study what happens when the model doesn't work. (Gives examples of building your world on a model predicated upon another person's behavior or the permanence of a relationship - and that rug is pulled out from under you.)  "Once you've had an experience like that, and most people have, you realize that the model you've built is tenuous, at best. ... What you experience when this happens is one of the most important learning experiences of your life. You come face-to-face with what made you build the model."

He ended the previous chapter about the walls we erect that keep us from seeing the light of the infinite with:

"True freedom is very close, it's just on the other side of your walls.  Enlightenment is a very special thing. But in truth, one should not focus on it. Focus, instead, on the walls of your own making that are blocking the light. Of what purpose is it to build walls that block the light and then strive for enlightenment? You can get out simply by letting everyday life take down the walls you hold around yourself. You simply don't participate in supporting,  maintaining, and defending your fortress.

"Imagine your house of thoughts standing in the middle of an ocean of light from a trillion stars. Imagine your awareness trapped inside the darkness of that house, struggling daily to live off the artificial light of your limited experiences. Now imagine the walls crumbling down, and the effortless release of consciousness expanding into the brilliance of what is and always was. Now give that experience a name -- enlightenment."

What I most appreciate about this book, is the practical advice.  Now, when I sense my heart beating fast, my chest tightening, I can stop. Envision the dog sitting on the edge of the yard, bearing the discomfort.  I can breathe into the moment, knowing these are emotions, that, just like when I feel wildly elated, will pass.  "Your cage is just like this. When you approach the edges you feel insecurity, jealousy, fear, or self-consciousness. You pull back, and if you are like most people, you stop trying."  (It feels it would be easier to just be single.)  "Spirituality begins when you decide that you'll never stop trying. Spirituality is the commitment to go beyond, no matter what it takes.  If you're truly going beyond, you are always at your limits. You're never back in the comfort zone. A spiritual being feels as though they are always against that edge, and they are constantly being pushed through it. ... You end up loving your edges because they point your way to freedom."

I can't say I love those edges, just yet.  But I know I'm in the right place, in the unknown, when I feel the shock collar activate, and know it's time to relax, hold the unknown in an open hand, rather than try to grasp and analyze.  To lean in to that discomfort.  Because eventually?  That's the path to freedom.

(Photo credit: Embracing the Unknown)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Live In a Way That Lets You Find the Hidden Poem: Seeing Connectedness

Jogging the reservoir during peak post-work hours was more of an exercise in patience and serpentine steps.  Previously unemployed, I had the freedom to go during off hours, enjoying a wide-open path, occasionally aware of someone just ahead, my pace rabbit, or that person doing interval training, with whom I kept a regular pass & nod schedule.  Just before sunset was a lesson in the art of dodging dogs walking humans, strollers pushed, groups of four meandering and chatting. I found myself slightly annoyed that they were on my path.  In my way.

Until I circled upon a view of the water, the porch lights of homes turning on all over the hillside, the seagulls and ducks in a row.  They rocked peacefully on the waves in the aftermath of the setting sun. Suddenly the crowd of people reminded me that I live in community, sharing life and the running|walking|dog-filled|stroller-strewn path.

I paused in my moment of zen to snap a photo.  It's actually easy to feel connected here, to return to this moment. 

Reservoir at dusk, through the chain link.

The challenge is on the L.A. subway. The man playing tinny music without headphones, the 17-year-old punks dudes jumping on and off cars at each stop, probably playing a game, but just young and dumb enough to feel threatening to a girl with only a book as defense. (Hardback, but still.)  The angry girl scowling at everyone, clearly ready for a fight.  Avoid eye contact.

Where is the connectedness here?  When I realize that the boys are BOYS.  They are bored, and have nothing better to do on a Saturday. Angry-girl may have had a hard day, or a hard life, and has put up a wall to protect her vulnerability that has been shattered when offered to those also living in pain, and unable to hold it with care. (I don't know about the guy sharing his bad music with all who happened to choose his same train car.  He's just rude.)

When I close my book, take out my earbuds, and pay attention, I see, just like the ducks resting on the water, the peace behind the chaos.  

“Anyone who says, 'Here’s my address, write me a poem,' deserves something in reply. So I’ll tell you a secret instead: poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes, they are sleeping. They are the shadows drifting across our ceilings the moment before we wake up. What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them."  ~Naomi Shihab Nye

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sitting with Anxiety, Part Two: How to Transcend Pain

"It's one of the paradoxes of life: When we have no walls, nothing can hurt us," Jennifer Kass writes in her piece, "How Highly Sensitive People Can Learn To Be Vulnerable."

"There's a misconception that being vulnerable causes pain, but it's in our vulnerability that we are safe and powerful beyond measure. When we stand in a space of love, we are self-approved, self-accepted, and nothing can harm us. We see through the fear-based illusions of not feeling worthy or good enough. It's only when we close our hearts and put up protective barriers that we are at the mercy of everyone and everything around us — from this place we become victims of our circumstances and give away our power by letting external things and other people control how we feel."  ~Kass

I get it, Universe, this is my work. I'm paying attention. Much of this journey started when I first heard Brené Brown's TED talk on the Power of Vulnerability.  And then listened to her longer talk with On Being's Krista Tippet. Then read her book Daring Greatly. Then realized that much of this journey started at BIRTH. 

"It's in our vulnerability that we are safe." This so closely resonates with the chapter I just finished reading  The Untethered Soul,  entitled "Pain, the Price of Freedom."  I recommend the book, even thought it wasn't til around chapter 6 was when I was connecting to it, mostly in how Singer's writing about how we store energy in our body, and how to release it.

Singer writes about the inner pain that is always there, and how, by avoiding it, we strengthen its power over our lives.  "You will come to see that any behavior pattern based on the avoidance of pain becomes a doorway to the pain itself. If you are afraid of being rejected by someone and you approach that person with the intention of winning their acceptance, you are skating on thin ice. All they have to do is look at you sideways or say the wrong thing, and you will feel the pain of rejection.  The bottom line is that since you approached them in the name of rejection, you're going to be dancing on the edge of rejection throughout the interaction. One way or another, the feelings you experience will work their way back to the motive behind your actions. The avoidance of pain is what your actions are linked to, and you will feel that link in your heart.

"... Your attempt to avoid this pain has created layer upon layer of sensitivities that are all linked to the hidden pain.

"... Most people don't even realize they are running around with pockets of pain inside that need to be worked out. ... What would your life be like if it wasn't run by that pain? You would be free.

... "To live at this level of freedom, you must learn not to be afraid of inner pain and disturbance. As long as you are afraid of the pain, you will try to protect yourself from it. The fear will make you do that. If you want to be free, simply view inner pain as a temporary shift in your energy flow. There is no reason to fear this experience. You must not be afraid of rejection, or of how you would feel if you got sick, or if someone died, or if something else went wrong.  ... All you will end up seeing is how much can potentially go wrong.

... "You must look inside yourself and determine that from now on pain is not a problem. It is just a thing in the universe. Somebody can say something to you that can cause your heart to react and catch fire, but then it passes. It's a temporary experience. Most people can hardly imagine what it would be like to be at peace with inner disturbance. But if you do not learn to be comfortable with it, you will devote your life to avoiding it. If you feel insecurity, it's just a feeling. You can handle a feeling. ... If you feel jealousy and your heart burns, just look at it objectively, like you would a mild bruise. It's a thing in the universe that is passing through your system. Laugh at it, have fun with it, but don't be afraid of it. It cannot touch you unless you touch it.

"...Somebody says something displeasing, and you feel some disturbance in your heart. Then your mind starts talking: "I don't have to put up with this. I'll just walk away and never talk to them again. They'll be sorry." Your heart is attempting to pull back from what it's experiencing and protect itself so that it doesn't have to experience that feeling again. You do this because you can't handle the pain you're feeling. As long as you can't handle the pain, you will react by closing in order to protect yourself. One you close, your mind will build an entire psychological structure around your closed energy. Your thoughts will try to rationalize why you're right, why the other person's wrong, and what you should do about it.

"You must learn to transcend the tendency to avoid the pain. ... When you feel pain, simply view it as energy. Just start seeing these inner experiences as energy passing through your heart and before the eye of your consciousness. Then relax. Do the opposite of contracting and closing. Relax and release. Relax your heart until you are actually face-to-face with the exact place where it hurts. Stay open and receptive so you can be present right where the tension is. You must be willing to be present right at the place of the tightness and pain, and then relax and go even deeper. This is very deep growth and transformation. But you will not want to do this. You will feel tremendous resistance to doing this, and that's what makes it so powerful. As you relax and feel the resistance, the heart will want to pull away, to close, to protect, and to defend itself. Keep relaxing. Relax your shoulders and relax your heart. Let go and give room for the pain to pass through you. It's just energy Just see it as energy and let it go.

"...Sometimes you will go through deep experiences that bring up intense pain. If it is in there, it is going to come up. If you have any wisdom, you will leave it alone and not try to change your life to avoid it. You will just relax and give it the space it needs to release and burn through you.  ... To feel great love and freedom, ... all of this stored pain must go. ... You must be willing at all times, in all circumstances, to remain conscious in the face of pain and to work with your heart by relaxing and remaining open.

"...This is the core of spiritual work. When you are comfortable with pain passing through you, you will be free. The worst the world can do is to hit the pain stored inside you  If you do not care, if you are no longer afraid of yourself, you are free.  You will then be able to walk through this world more vibrant and alive than ever before.  ... Eventually you will understand that there is an ocean of love behind all this fear and pain. That force will sustain you by feeding your heart from deep within. Over time, you will form an intensely personal relationship with this beautiful inner force. It will replace the relationship you currently have with inner pain and disturbance. Now peace and love will run your life. When you pass beyond the layer of pain, you will finally be free from the binds of the psyche."

It alllll resonates deeply for me, and I'm especially thankful for the actual "how-to" of relaxing your body, to pay attention to how the pain is presenting through tension or heat, and purposefully relaxing the body to let it pass through.  And I especially liked the last  part - about replacing the relationship I currently have with inner pain with deep love.  For too long I've attached and identified with the pain, making it a more permanent part of who I am, rather than recognizing it as an emotion.  And that like all emotions, whether we label them good or bad, this too, shall pass.

(This photo of a girl we met in the slums of Addis Ababa always reminds me of joy, and perspective.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Talk to Strangers: Carry Congo into the Grocery Store

I love talking to strangers.  When I tell the boyfriend that we'll be having drinks with the new friend I met at the bus stop, he barely feigns surprise. 

I rarely need props, but I find that pulling out my Congo Carryall to bag my groceries at Trader Joe's prompts conversation EVERY TIME.  "What a gorgeous bag!" the checker-outer exclaims, to the background beat of Katy Perry, 60s tunes, and surf songs that make up the ubiquitous soundtrack of the store. (I must sing along.)

And then?  We're off and running, talking Fair Trade and work with women in Congo.  I often learn a bit about this person, who now knows my diverse grocery list and obsession with TJs Orange Blossom Honey French Liquid Hand Soap. You can't ever have too much.

So if you're feeling a little lonely in Los Angeles, or your similar tiny town, try this.  Buy a bag. Take it to your local market.  Smile at the people around you.  Be willing to talk about yourself, just a little, and Congo, and why it matters to you that women's lives are being reinvented through entrepreneurial trainings like the Action Kivu sewing workshops, and that they now have a way to use those skills to earn good wages, and then your new friend will know that through The Peace Exchange, they, too, can help these women create a better life in Congo!

Check 'em out, here.  I'm partial to the springlike blues and yellows of this one, and the more camo-inspired greens and browns and butterflies of another.  What's your favorite? 

Friday, March 07, 2014

Community of Healers: Trauma Tapping Training in Congo

It was almost noon, but already a steamy day in early January, eastern Congo. We were late meeting 26 women, but they waited on us, understanding that time, in Congo, is relevant and fluid. We met in the middle of a jungle, in the center of a village, in a school that butts up against the local church. Tucked in amidst brick buildings with dirt floors, we met women wrapped in dresses of bright African fabrics or dingy, worn tee shirts.  The silence of the hot afternoon was punctuated only by the sound of a typewriter clacking in a nearby school office. The silence made it possible to hear fingers gently thumping skin and bone, to hear the two deep breaths taken together at the end of a round of Trauma Tapping Therapy.

...That day in Mumosho, an intermittent breeze blew through the open windows, wrapping around the women, bringing the outside in as they carefully practiced Trauma Tapping Therapy, touching fingers to a forehead, to the tops of cheekbones, tapping the inside of each finger, lightly pummeling each other's breastbones, holding hands and breathing together. Though the women giggled at how silly it looked to practice the therapy on each other, they soon relaxed into the work, and created a sacred space to explore what trauma means for each woman, and for their community.

Read the full piece at The Huffington Post, here

Gunilla Hamne (left) leads the Trauma Tapping Therapy (TTT) training, Amani translates, communicates and connects, I take non-stop notes.

Gunilla Hamne guides the therapy practice.

Gunilla listens to the women list the kinds of experiences that create trauma in their lives.

The women practice TTT.

The women take a break outside the classroom.
(Photos by Cate Haight)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Music, Silence, and Snoring: We Shuffled in from Trafalgar Square

We shuffled in from Trafalgar Square, a mix of retirees, tourists, and homeless, de-coating and de-scarfing, we opened the low doors to each church pew, settling bags and unopened umbrellas onto the shelves at our knees. Unaccustomed to high church, I unwittingly propped my boot-clad feet on the kneeling bench. Sensing side-eye from my pew-mates, I quickly adjusted myself on the hard bench, feet properly on the floor.

The afternoon sun was shining in through windows high above; St. Martin-in-the-Fields sanctuary an open and airy space. The bright light a rarity in wintry London, it was tempting to cut out of the concert to enjoy rain-free skies. But it was too late: two wee pianists, both born in Romania, stepped out from the front of the sanctuary, and sitting side-by-side, hands hovering above the keys to play “piano four-hands.” They began with Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, and moved on to Schubert’s Fantasia in F Minor.

The pianists' brunette heads bobbed and dipped toward the piano, sometimes individually, sometimes in unison as they moved with the music. The homeless, white-haired man in front of me bobbed his body in rhythm with his own beat. Around him, heads bobbed to the left and right, unable to ignore his snores.

Together, we created our own concert, bobbing heads, snores, hands half-raised, unsure if it was the right time to applaud in the moment of silence between movements, til the music swelled again, and the homeless man's head jerked to attention.

And later, at dinner, a Sunday roast at the local pub near where the boyfriend is living in London, he, a singer/songwriter, talked about the necessity of silence behind the song, the space created for words to stand, to breathe, to be both fluid and strong, to inhabit their meaning and, when heard, move beyond. It is true in writing prose as well; when I write or re-read a piece and feel frenetic, I generally delete or shred, knowing it best to start over from a place of peace.

"The first rule in answering, if there is one, is to wait. The part of our brain that has the 'right' answer for everything is a dull place, built of endless chains of associations, everything we knew in the past. This knowing may be factually correct but there’s a problem with it. It is dead.

"To touch something that is unique, alive, calls for a search: 'Is this really true right now?' (Most likely that first instant response is already known to the questioner, and she is hoping for something new.) A response unique to the moment is precious, and even, one might say memorable.

"But waiting even a split second takes courage. Dare I search in myself for what is more true? What if nothing better arises? Never fear, there is a deeper wisdom in each of us, and it needs space, and a little time to appear. It needs my trust."

–Lillian Firestone on how to answer a spiritual question from Parabola Magazine's winter issue.

(Photos: Outside St. Martin-in-the-Fields, looking up;  St. Martin-in-the-Fields illustration -