Friday, April 25, 2014

Walking in L.A.: Choir Practice and Sleeping on Sidewalks

If I'd been in a car, I wouldn't have heard the sound of voices.  At first it sounded like a carol, then a choir. From my church'd childhood, I immediately looked for the chapel, the taste of sour coffee and stale cookies filling my mouth. But, on the dark sidewalk, all I saw was a long driveway leading to one of the many, rambling, Craftsman houses that line Silver Lake's streets.

I paused on my walk to downhill to the bar, appreciating the sound of voices harmonizing, and the fact that I was in a tank top in late April after the sun had set, that I was on my way to see a friend and catch up over a glass of great wine.  I tried to capture the sound of song via the video on my phone, but with all the ambient noise of the neighborhood, it's difficult to hear. 

As I continued down the hill, the choir fading, I saw shadows beneath the trees, people sleeping on the dark side of the street, the sound of the traffic on Sunset their choir.  I was reminded of the Anderson Cooper report — of how it costs us less as tax payers to provide homes for the homeless.  And how lucky I am to have a home, a friend to meet.  And how my work is to be aware, present with what is, yet fighting to change systems to create a more connected life.

And my job is to stop to listen to the music around me.  Happily car-free. 

Monday, April 07, 2014

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

Roses on mass graves. Skulls encased in glass. Stories of children brutally murdered. I don’t wonder that I couldn't finish writing this story, that I waited two years to write about my 2012 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 Rwandan 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 of work 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 center 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 of the city's inhabitants 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 who was 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.

Our host 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 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 for him, and Jack, easy-going with a ready smile, told us he would step outside if it was.

We made 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. There 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. 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 descriptions of 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, displayed behind glass, 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 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 or 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 skull was a Hutu or Tutsi, Jewish or Christian, Cambodian, Armenian, Serb or Albanian. Underneath our skin, we are 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, Michael A. 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)