Garden of Eden

Garden of Eden
Wave Hill, Riverdale in the Bronx

Friday, October 31, 2014

Jacaranda Blossoms

There is another life that awaits us when we have the courage to walk through the open door. For it is when we are willing to take those first few steps toward discovery that we find our treasure. ~ Patricia Philippe

This life blooms in wildness and a shade of lavender-blue that doesn't seem to belong, but does. The petals scatter everywhere and the wildness gets in your hair when you forget to be prim and proper. These Jacaranda blossoms drape over your organized curves and in the beginning, it was just an idea, but still, you had to go see what was there. Instead of a list of instructions tossed in the road, you got a list of haphazard turns, a list of forbidden curves that never came back to the beginning. But you took the road scattered with these wild Jacaranda blossoms anyway. There's nothing special about the random occasions of life blooming in every direction, except that the almost straight lines of the missing stems taunt you. There's a hilarity in it, really, for the stems are supposed to keep the wildness out, but it refuses to cooperate with the expected. Refuses, even, to live in the realm of normal, preferring the stunning ambiguity of this lavender-blue hue that you can't stop looking at. If you didn't know better, you would think these Jacaranda blossoms were laughing at you, and they are. Because they know that the only way to live is to let the wildness in until it takes over everything. That's why you can't stop walking down that road. You know it too.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

This Red Earth

There is another life that awaits us when we have the courage to walk through the open door. For it is when we are willing to take those first few steps toward discovery that we find our treasure. ~ Patricia Philippe



There are images of Malawi that will forever be imprinted in my mind. Men carried unbelievably large bundles of rice on their heads. Women were dressed impeccably from head to toe except for the reddish soil that coated their heels and worn sandals. Boys walked together with joy and appreciation for the tire they found to play with. The colorful array of head scarves and wrapper skirts and donated t-shirts left behind by other travelers, painted a striking image against the backdrop of this red earth. It seemed that the soil coated those who traveled its roads with nourishment and passage to something bigger inside themselves. Life was beautiful, even when it wasn’t. Every day, weary travelers walked or biked to and from work or school or the market. Many times I felt like jumping out of the car to walk with them. I wanted to say Mulibwanji and ask about their lives. But that wasn’t on the agenda for this trip.

One evening while I was in Lilongwe, I wrapped my head in a scarf and went for a solitary walk. I felt restless and wanted to roam. Not far from the gates of our hotel, I stumbled upon two older girls wrapped in head scarves carrying their young brothers on their backs. They laughed and joked as one boy kept falling down and climbing back on. When I said Mulibwanji and asked if they were having fun, I got the most light-filled smiles I have ever seen. There’s nothing better than the sound of children’s laughter and the sight of curious smiles. This red earth of Malawi has stories waiting to be told.

As I walked and the last few rays of light left the sky, I thought about the irrational fears that almost kept me from coming to Malawi. I thought about the writing workshop we did earlier that day. There were a group of about 18 girls and women from diverse backgrounds. Some were fluent in Chichewa, but had a hard time expressing themselves in English. Some spoke English, but felt shy about writing down their story. What started out as a roomful of strangers, shortly turned into stories written on paper and in the air that elicited laughter and a clear understanding that girls and women from every background can sit in a room for three hours and discover a common thread.

In each participant, I saw a hidden talent that had not yet found a stage to perform. I met a shy 14 year old girl who secretly wrote songs, prayers and hopes for her life in a notebook she carried everywhere. I met a mother who adored her children and turned out to have a flair for dancing. There was another part of us all waiting to emerge and I hoped the writing workshop gave everyone a chance to push out that hidden part of themselves. And it did.

These roads are long and the travelers are weary yet determined. When I agreed to volunteer to lead writing workshops in Malawi, I did not know how much being here would remind me of the stories my grandmother would tell me about growing up in Haiti in the early 1900s. About growing vegetables in her garden and having to walk miles down the mountain to the city to sell them. I witnessed this here in Malawi and what stands out is that their lives prepare them for just about anything one can imagine. The skills and talents developed from the experience of everyday living is priceless. Leadership. Collaboration. Resilience. Negotiation. Resourcefulness. Patience. In spite of their own hardships, there was a spirit of generosity wherever I went.

I am thrilled to have had this opportunity to be a witness. So much so that I would love to come back and stay much longer to work with some of the girls and women on a short term project. One of the ideas I have for my next trip to Malawi is to travel up and down one of the roads and spontaneously hold five minute writing workshops with girls and women to encourage them to write and share their stories. Perhaps we would write in the air and I would film them and make it into a documentary. I strongly believe in allowing my words to live out there in the world because if the universe agrees, it will happen. There are stories that need to be told and I want to tell them. So I send my words out now. I will be back. I don’t know when, but it will happen when the timing, opportunity and resources align.

Want to read more of my writing, learn about workshops i'm teaching or hear what else I have to say? Follow me on Twitter.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

You Are Free to Roam

There is another life that awaits us when we have the courage to walk through the open door. For it is when we are willing to take those first few steps toward discovery that we find our treasure. ~ Patricia Philippe

I love how when I follow my intuition, it leads me to the discovery of something that I didn't know was there. On a whim I took a workshop at Kripalu called Word Collage by Lara Tupper. I cut words and phrases from various magazines and arranged them into this poem.

One night with you and i'll never be the same.

Why stop at one night?

Interesting how a change in light can illuminate your entire spirit.

If you have a house, the scenery never changes.

But if you have a boat, it changes constantly.

Make a clean sweep.

Light can change everything.

What am I, invisible?

This was the effort of a lifetime!

I wasn't born to carpool.

A new life.

A taste of truth.

May we all find inspiration in the majesty of the sea and the beauty of the surrounding mountains.

Strolling at leisure.

Keeping things fresh.

Weaving the colors of life.

Sweet liberty.

Seduction.

Life's a little more peaceful.

You are free to roam.

Risk taking is a family trait.

Gratitude is a Holy Prayer

Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself. ~ The Bhagavad Gita

Thank you is a prayer that doesn't get said enough. In this moment, I sit wrapped in a warm, fleece blanket at Kripalu feeling grateful for being able to look at my life with gratitude. Thank you is the only prayer that I need to get me through this next period of transition and uncertainty.

In this moment, I am deeply grateful to have the love of a 23 year friendship. This thank you glows like a bright white light in my heart. When we first met, it was "love" at first sight. Our eyes locked and a contract was signed in that very moment. In his eyes, my subconscious read, "God has sent me. I will hold you up until you are strong enough. Don't worry. I accept you as you are. You are safe."

This love has held me up through unhealthy relationships. Through harassment issues at work. Through years of therapy and trauma counseling and my best friend's passing. Through Mom's dementia diagnosis and yearly hospitalizations with nursing home stints for rehab. It took me through the discomfort of changing ostomy bags and giving insulin injections when I was terrified of doing it wrong and causing harm. This love took me through years of wondering how much longer I could continue to sacrifice my youth. Wow! As I sit here, I am deeply connected to how hard it has been. Really hard. And what I see is that God sent me those loving hands to cradle the heaviest of my burdens. There is no way I would have survived without them. Through it all we laughed at the messes I got myself into. Laughed during the times I would not allow myself to cry for fear of releasing a flood that would drown me. I am so grateful that his love and friendship has taken me to this point where I am strong enough to stand powerfully and hold myself up. Thank you K.H. Thank you.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Silence

Silence is a war crime. ~ Author Unknown

Silence is a war crime. I remember seeing this quote on Facebook sometime last year. What resonated with me at the time was my interpretation that keeping quiet about all the injustices I saw unfolding around me diminished my power as a woman. So I chose to speak up and share my own vulnerable experiences in the hopes that others could learn from them and be inspired in their own lives. My voice deserves to be heard, I thought. People need to be confronted with the truth whether they want to hear it or not. But as I sit here processing my experiences in Malawi, what I realize is that for a woman, silence can be the most powerful tool that she possesses. Because there is a fine line between using your voice powerfully and with discernment and causing harm to yourself and others by using your voice to deliver the right message at the wrong time or to the wrong audience. In many ways, this is the anxiety filled tightrope that I personally walk and navigate every day. Not just in a foreign country where i'm unfamiliar with the rules or cultural norms. But at home in the U.S. as well. When to speak up and when to be silent.

There were subtle things that my eyes witnessed while in Malawi. Things I heard. Things I had a physical reaction to. Even things that I instinctively knew to be true but had to pretend otherwise. I had to pretend that I didn't see...pretend that I didn't know. I went to Malawi to lead writing workshops with girls who had been orphaned and women living in villages struggling to care for their families while navigating the realities of their roles as women. And in spite of all that I witnessed, I chose to stay focused on the goal. And trust me when I tell you that it was a choice. An anonymous supporter of mine wrote this note to me this morning. "Volunteering in a country where the role of women as it relates to how they are treated by men is an especially hard thing for a domestic violence survivor to do." Yes, it was. I am so proud of myself for doing my best.

On my 2nd day in Malawi, I was a witness and participant in a surprising scene that played out at the market. A young man pointed to me and told our guide he wanted a picture with me. When the guide relays the message, I say i'll do it for a Fanta. After all, the women selling beans had just asked me to buy each of them a Fanta in exchange for taking their picture. They laugh when I ask him to buy me a Fanta. Then I upped the price to something like $10,000 kwatcha. One of my travel companions joined in on the fun and said, "You can have her for $200,000 kwatcha." To me it was all a game. Because I knew he couldn't "have me" for any price. Is this the way men pick out their women in Malawi? The whole market was watching. He points to me again and says, "I want you." "Are you going? says our guide." By then I had already started towards him. I was curious how this game would play out. I motioned for him to come closer. I would not walk all the way to him. He walked a little, I met him the rest of the way. "What's your name?" I asked extending my hand. "If i'm going to take a picture with you, I might as well know your name." Later that night, as I sat alone in my room, I wondered. Was it really a game? Or was it the Malawi equivalent of a catcall that every NYC woman experiences? It was only my second day in Malawi and I didn't really want to know. I preferred to think of it as a game knowing I lived elsewhere.

A month later, I wonder how I would handle that situation now. What I do know is that when God made women, we must have been given something extra. Because every woman I know, no matter how many times we fall down or are forcibly pushed down, we always stand up. And sometimes that means making light of a situation to diffuse any tension building. In the faces of the Malawian women I saw resilience, grace, beauty, and dignity in spite of the challenging circumstances. As in the Haitian culture and every culture around the world, women are the pillars of society and I was honored to be present with these powerful women in Malawi.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Generosity Without Borders

There is another life that awaits us when we have the courage to walk through the open door. For it is when we are willing to take those first few steps toward discovery that we find our treasure. ~ Patricia Philippe


What struck me the most about being in Malawi is the spirit of generosity that I experienced in so many. There were teachers starting outreach programs, kids looking out for each other, artists giving their time to offer an inspirational talk to the kids and business women starting pre-school programs. And on the day that some of the teachers participated in their training to become writing group facilitators, the kids received the gift of brand new shoes and socks thanks to the tireless efforts of Fatima Paulo. How wonderful it was to be in Malawi to witness all of this love. It all started with the vision of one Malawian woman, Marie DaSilva, who started Jacaranda at the site of her family home. Thank God there are people in the world who have the capacity not only to care about others, but to be of service where the greatest need exists, regardless of the resources available. It's been seven months since my mom's passing and what strikes me so powerfully is that through the choices I am making to live life out loud, fully connected to my true nature, I am becoming so much like her.

The Jacaranda School for Orphans needs resources to continue to exist. If you have a few dollars to share, please consider making a donation on their website at http://www.jacarandafoundation.org/content/donate.

You also have the option to sponsor one or more orphans.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Irrational Fear and the Blessings After

"So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite & never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience— And if it hurts, you know what? It's probably worth it." ~ Unknown Author

The day before I was to fly to Malawi I broke out in a hive rash. Red itchy blotches all over my body. I went to the ER and was given a high dose of benadryl and reassured it was nothing serious. I was relieved and disappointed. My fears had already taken over and on a subconscious level I was looking for an excuse not to go. The next morning the rash was worse. I called the organizer and told her I was afraid I was sick. Rather than saying it was OK that I should take care of myself and stay home, she started asking me some questions. At one point I heard her say irrational fear. Oh! Something clicked. I'm making myself sick because i'm afraid. Ok I said. Let me get to the airport. I don't know if i'll get on the plane but at least let me get to the airport.

I just arrived back home in the US. As I sit here, I can't help but reflect on this experience. Had I not gotten on that plane, here are the treasures I would have missed.

1) There was a documentary filmmaker hiding inside me. I've filmed many short videos.

2) I was part of a team that trained 23 teachers. I felt like a proud mom after observing my group give their first workshop with students.

3) I have led many writing workshops with both teachers and students and now feel confident about my abilities.

My life has been forever changed. I have been deeply touched and inspired by all I have met. In Malawi, I have discovered and experienced things that will take me some time to process. My eyes have seen joy amidst a devastating set of circumstances. My presence inspired and encouraged many of the girls who wanted me to stay longer. I helped a young man discover the treasure hidden inside himself. None of this would have been possible without your support and encouragement. Thank you for believing in me!

Here's a random assortment of pictures to keep you occupied until I can organize pics with stories. We've actually published a few on the VoiceFlame blog, so start there.

Newly Trained Writing Group Facilitators at Jacaranda

There is another life that awaits us when we have the courage to walk through the open door. For it is when we are willing to take those first few steps toward discovery that we find our treasure. ~ Patricia Philippe

I felt like a proud mom watching the teachers complete the final part of their training towards becoming a certified writing group facilitator in the Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) Method developed by Pat Schneider. Part one of the training involved an introduction to the AWA method. While Mary and John facilitated the training, I wrote notes on the blackboard and Marty assisted teachers who wanted additional assistance.

* A writer is one who writes

* We all have a strong, unique voice

* Absolutely no criticism of first draft work. Positive feedback only.

* Treat all writing as fiction

The plan for this training came after many discussions around the dinner table. As I watched the teachers’ blank, expressionless faces, I wondered if they were absorbing it all. When we announced that two days later they would lead practice workshops of their own, there was no visible reaction. When Mary asked if I had anything to add to what was already discussed, I shared my own experience as a newly trained facilitator. I told them I remembered the sense of information overload and overwhelming fear that I could never lead a workshop of my own. But that my confidence significantly improved after doing a practice workshop and here I am in Malawi doing workshops with surprisingly large groups of kids. I hoped the teachers would have the same experience.


When Thursday arrived, I sat with the group I was scheduled to observe during part two of the training. “Don’t worry,” I said to Joseph, Esther, Mavuto, Linda, McNevers, Macroza and Raphael. “I have complete faith in all of you.” As I participated in each facilitator’s practice workshop, I felt a warmth start in my heart, creep to the corners of my lips and finally to my eyes. I tried not to let them see the notes I was writing next to each of their names. “I am proud of him. He was nervous in the beginning but pushed through and now he seems confident.” “Oh. I love the unique way in which she started her workshop!” “I especially enjoy his energy & enthusiasm and the way he engaged the group.” At the end, I had a strong feeling that they would pass part three of the training with flying colors and they did.


As of Friday, September 19, 2014, we have 23 AWA Certified Writing Group Facilitators at the Jacaranda School for Orphans. The teachers are now in the process of forming a committee to discuss incorporating their newly acquired training in the classroom, leading the writing clubs once the rest of the VoiceFlame team leaves Malawi and ways to continue their own writing. In fact, Mary just shared a few Dekaaz poems written by some of the newly trained writing facilitators:


These hands

creative

thoughts come out clearly

by Joseph Khofi


You know

that you know

you do not know that

By McNevers Blanzio


Take this

challenging

task with great caution

By Maxwell Kasonga


Today

I feel the

cool breeze of the world

By Elinah Paul


This post was originally published on VoiceFlame's blog where you can read stories from other members of our team.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Mulibwanji. How are you?

There is another life that awaits us when we have the courage to walk through the open door. For it is when we are willing to take those first few steps toward discovery that we find our treasure. ~ Patricia Philippe

Ndilibwino Kayainu. I’m fine and how are you? Before I left the United States, I challenged myself to learn Chichewa and get a video taken of me having a basic conversation with a Malawian native. As a Haitian-American with a few family members who don’t speak English, I related to the frustration of not being able to communicate and wanted to make an effort to learn the language.

There is something incredibly powerful about speaking with people in their own language. Every time I approach a group of Malawians whose faces appear serious, a volcano of smiles erupts as soon as I say Mulibwanji and extend my hand. A few times on this trip, I have even said Mulibwanji as I pass the kids on the street and the look of shock mixed in with a big smile is priceless and always makes me smile inside. I did not anticipate, however, how challenging it would be for me to form the sounds in Chichewa. Words or expressions such as Ndilibwino (How are you?) and Mzungu (foreigner) pose a bit of a challenge for me because they begin with consonants that are not normally next to each other in English. But little by little, I’m learning. Because the experience of stumbling over Chichewa words, mispronouncing them and remembering how to say basic things has helped me relate to the literacy challenges here in Malawi.

Many people speak Chichewa at home and only learn English when they go to private school. Students in the local public schools learn in Chichewa and progress to English language instruction later on in their education. But since many girls are trained to get married, have children and take care of the family, many do not have the opportunity to receive an education. Or if they do have an opportunity, there are financial challenges at home that forces them to drop out. So there are many women in the villages who don’t speak, read or write in English.

Fortunately, James Khaduya, former primary school headmaster and currently the Voice Flame Manager for Writing Workshops started a literacy program at the public library to help women in the surrounding villages learn to speak, read and write in English. Mary, Marty, Chikondi and I had the pleasure of participating in one of their classes.

When Gladys, the first participant arrived, we all took turns introducing ourselves and encouraging her to greet us in English. She seemed shy and later on as she struggled with phrases like, “Everyday I cook Nsima, or yesterday I walked to work, it occurred to me that I have also been experiencing the same shyness, discomfort and frustration while trying to learn Chichewa. In fact, I have already felt quite frustrated pronouncing the word Ndilibwino which, in Chichewa means I’m fine. I shared this with Gladys during a break in her literacy lesson. I said it in English and Mr. Kaduya translated into Chichewa. I couldn’t understand what she said in response, but she smiled and sat up straighter. I felt that she related to me and I hoped she understood that we were in the same boat. Afterwards, she seemed to be more willing to try, even if she made mistakes. I didn’t get a chance to ask her, but I’m pretty sure she understood that struggling to read, write and speak a new language had nothing to do with income, family background or anything other than the fact that this is what every student experiences. We all go through similar struggles, fears and moments of embarrassment.

This post was originally published on VoiceFlame's blog where you can read stories from other members of our team.