Tuesday, August 15, 2006

letting be, making space, filling up

Since I'm on the topic of the "Our New Orleans" course (see earlier post) I'm recycling a piece of writing I did after one of the classes. Enjoy.

May 16, 2006

Many of you know that the "Our New Orleans" class I've been teaching for the last five weeks has been a sacred experience -- from my collaboration with Pam Broom, to the Katrina neighbors who agreed to participate, and the way that each element of the class that I have trusted to work out has indeed, worked out.

Tonight, I showed up to teach my "Our New Orleans" class empty, shaken, and tired.

I sat there next to my co-teacher Pam and thought that I should say something to get started -- I wrote down the things "to do" in class today, and then still, I didn't say anything as the participants in the class spoke to each other. I thought Pam might say something, but she didn't.

About ten minutes later, Nana, one of the participants from New Orleans, walked in with a white plastic grocery bag and a plant in a turquoise ceramic pot. Nana is a priest -- she trained for the priesthood in Cuba. She had prayed for us this morning at the Eno River, and she had received the message that she should present an altar for this evening's class.

So she set out a simple navy cloth napkin on the table, and April filled a clear glass bowl with water. She poured essential oils into a burner (one of those ones that are heated by a tea light) and it was a fresh, clean smell -- nothing heavy or muddying. She told us that all the elements of the earth were there on the altar -- pebbles from the river in the plant (minerals), the earth, water, etc. She invited us to each place an object onto the altar if we felt comfortable doing so. I placed both of my rings -- one from my parents, and one I bought in California as a reminder of the writer Amanda Davis, who I interviewed three days before she died in a terrible plane crash with her parents. Others stood up too, and place rings and necklaces, and one woman placed a flash drive with her photographs stored on it. We all shared stories about our sacred objects.

The "theme" of this evening's class was spirit, and almost as an afterthought, I had given the class Anne Lamott's essay "Traveling Mercies" to read, and a poem that serves as the epigraph to the book Traveling Mercies,” one that begins:

with the night falling we are saying thank-you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms with our
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank-you

So I suggested that we each read a few lines of the poem, and I began. We went around the class, everyone reading a line or two or three -- it was up to each person. And Pam, who was sitting to my left, read the last line.

We all looked at each other, and Hei-Yesh (Pam’s daughter, and a writer/filmmaker) said what we were all thinking -- there were the exact number of lines for everyone to be able to read a part.

And the Anne Lamott essay, which I almost didn't give the class, turned out to be really important. I wasn't sure that students would want to discuss it, as it was only tangentially related to documentary work. But when I asked the class what they wanted to do today (by then I'd realized that I was thankfully not in charge), they wanted to talk about it. One of our Katrina neighbors told us she cried as she read it in the airport on the way to New Orleans for her graduation from Tulane (with a master's degree in environmental engineering). Another woman told the story of her mother's death; there were so many stories. Women told about how they grew up with the phrase "traveling mercies," in their families, in their church.

One of the things Anne talks about in the essay is how that when a lot of small and large things begin to go wrong, "it is to protect something that is big and lovely that is trying to get itself born -- and that something needs for you to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible." And how easy it is to believe that when it's other people's stuff that is going wrong, but when, as Anne says, "it's my stuff, I believe the direct cause is my bad character."

Anyway, in the essay Anne is driving to visit a childhood friend and her mother (who is very sick and close to dying) and a bolt loosens in her Volkswagen on her way over. She is unable to visit that day, but when she arrives several days later, she is able to be present for her friend and her mother, and she writes:

"Now, maybe you think it is arrogant or self-centered or ridiculous for me to believe that God bothered to wiggle a cheap bolt out of my new used car because he or she needed to keep me away for a few days until just the moment when my old friend most needed me to help her mother moved into whatever comes next. Maybe nothing conscious helped stall me so that I would be there when I could be most useful. Or maybe it did. I'll never know for sure. And anyway, it doesn't really matter."

Nana read this passage aloud to the class. And she said that it did matter. That our culture has gotten so far away from the beliefs about how the spirit works in our lives, as an active and present force, and that this belief is common to many cultures. That we need to understand that "life moves in a divine order."

I know I feel that way about meeting Pam, about the class, about it's participants -- I've felt that way from the beginning. There are times I feel that with certainty. And lots of the class participants felt that way too.

We have to move slower, Nana said. Move with confidence and grace. Slowly.

April and I exchanged a long glance. I work with April more closely then anyone, and she probably knows better then anyone the spurts of speed that move me through my work; she definitely suffers for it on occasion.

Hei-Yesh shared a piece of her writing; one of the participants played a part the video she is working on -- Darlene, her project partner, sharing stories from her life in New Orleans. And Nana asked if she could sing to us. And she did.

Listen more often to things than to beings
Listen more often to things than to beings
Tis the ancestors' breath when the fire's voice is heard
Tis the ancestors' breath in the voice of the waters

Those who have died have never left
The dead are not under the earth
They are in the rustling trees
They are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass
They are in the moaning rocks

Listen more often to things than to beings
Listen more often to things than to beings
Tis the ancestors' breath when the fire's voice is heard
Tis the ancestors' breath in the voice of the waters

Those who have died have never left
The dead have a pact with the living
They are in the woman's breast
They are in the wailing child
They are with us in our homes
They are with us in this crowd
The dead have a pact with the living.

Listen more often to things than to beings
Listen more often to things than to beings
Tis the ancestors' breath when the fire's voice is heard
Tis the ancestors' breath in the voice of the waters

She sang a cappella. Sweet Honey and the Rock sings this song, if you want to hear what it sounds like.

There are so many more things I could tell you about the class this evening. Things that were really funny (the mother-daughter dynamics of Pam and Hei-Yesh), the kind laughter at my expense, how grateful I was to be able to share freely. How in the end, bringing my emptiness to the class, and not trying to compensate, and just letting things be actually worked. It created space, and someone else stepped in.

I asked the class what they might want Pam and I to teach next fall. One person asked, could we have a class that is just like this, the way we talked and shared today? After some discussion, I said, you know, the power of doing documentary work is that we can take what happens in this room and spread it further. What if we teach a class called "Documenting the Sacred?" It could go in a lot of different ways -- people could work with partners, or by themselves...and document whatever they believe is sacred. And we’d have a project to work towards.

No decisions were made, but it feels like a good idea.

I asked Nana to close the class for us, and we all held hands (right hand over left hand, though I thought it was supposed to be right arm over left arm, and wondered why Pam wasn't doing it right -- until I noticed the rest of the class wasn't doing it, um, right either). Anyway, Nana prayed (a very open, nondenominational prayer) and the class ended.

As we were walking out the door, I suggested to Nana that she think about co-teaching the "Documenting the Sacred" class with Pam and I.

"That never occurred to me," she said.

"Just let it sit a while," I said, "see how it feels to you."

"We can see how far we can stretch the academy," Nana said, "What kind of class we could shape within that."

Nana had said this before -- talking about "the academy" and questioning what kind of class we'd be allowed to offer.

"Well I direct this program," I said, "so I am the academy. We can do pretty much whatever we want."

I think she could see that I was about to step away from that declaration, and she said, "No, that's good. Own your power."

I think one of the reasons I'm struggling so much these days is that I do spend time in the light of God, with a sense of what I have to offer the world. The ideas I'm thinking about and sometimes writing about are important, and I know it. I am arriving. I'm on the precipice of living into my promise, and then on days like yesterday, I'm so filled with fear and panic I can hardly breathe. It comes out of nowhere -- and at the same time, it's utterly predictable the way it happens.

Anyway, on Saturday, everyone in the class is bringing their video and audio tapes, their photographs, their writing, back to CDS and we’ll start to assemble their projects – which I’m very excited about. And by next class, I’ll have some of my own writing done for the collaboration Pam and I are doing (as teachers, we have to do the same project the class is doing). So we’ll be back “on track” with our class, except I don’t think tonight was “off track,” at all.


Anonymous said...

Dawn, I read this before and it is still marvelous.

Anonymous said...

Who knows where to download XRumer 5.0 Palladium?
Help, please. All recommend this program to effectively advertise on the Internet, this is the best program!