Una Flor de Cempasúchil

This is una flor de Cempasúchil.  In Mexico it is harvested beginning in October and it is used as an offering for El Día de Muertos. Every year for this day in November, I set up a beautiful altar for my grandmother and other loved ones who have passed away.  Yesterday as I was watering our nectarine tree, I found this single flower growing.  And instantly I felt the presence of my grandma reminding me she is always here, supporting and guiding me, us.

Let me tell you how I knew it was her.  The other night I woke up around 1:00 a.m. and my mind just started to think about a few things that have been weighing heavy on my heart.  Some relating to finances, another relating to a challenging situation I am experiencing with someone I love deeply.

I could feel my anxiety rising over me like a blanket of fear.  I started to do Reiki on myself, but I couldn’t even focus.  So I started to repeat myself, “I am supported and provided for.  I am supported and provided for.  I am supported and provided for.”  I imagined all the vastness of the universe.  The stars, the planets, the billions of miles between me and another star and all the possibilities that exists in that space. All that the energy of life already supports.  I felt my body begin to surrender and relax.

A shift happened for me that night.  For the first time, I realized, that I really believe deeply that I am being supported by life.  I was no longer saying it to convince or reassure myself.  I understood that night that all along I have been supported by life, and I just have to trust her.

In fact we all are.  Everything in the universe is always conspiring for us, we just have to listen, pay attention and trust.  When we are aligned and attuned to the energy of life, we are able to tap into her power and receive her abundance and blessings.  This doesn’t mean that we won’t struggle, or feel doubt and uncertainty.  What it means is that when these waves of challenges come over us, we have to be able to access a deeper part of ourselves that is not connected to the immediate circumstances, but rather is connected to the soul of the universe.  This part of us is the part that fuels our trust and a deep knowing of well-being.

Pema Chodron wisely states, “The truth is that things don’t really get solved.  They come together and fall apart.  They come together again and fall apart again.  It’s just like that.  The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

Seeing that flower, I felt like my grandma knows what I experienced and is telling me, “Yes, mi niña, you are being supported.

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Yellow Rain Boots

When I was around three or fours years of age, I remember walking down the street with my Tita Carmen (grandma), holding her hand. There were small puddles of water everywhere. I suppose it had rained, recently. We were in Tijuana, Mexico and it wasn’t uncommon to have super flooded sections of the road, so we had to weave through the streets as we made our way to the Mercado. We came upon a puddle that was big enough for me to see the depth of the sky and its grey, puffy clouds.

I stopped and tugged her hand and asked her, “Si brincó en el agua, me caigo en el cielo?” (If I jump in the water, will I fall in the sky?) Without hesitation, she told me to try and see. But she said it in such a way that I knew I had her approval, and I would be safe.

So with a mixture of curiosity, excitement and nervousness of the unknown, I went for it and stomped right into the puddle with my yellow rain boots. The ripples, the splashes, the adventure, the freedom of that moment, never left my soul. Without understanding it then, my grandmother was teaching me a lesson of courage. She was setting me up to live a bold and unrestricted life.

I have always been curious, adventurous, and never intimidated by the unknown or unfamiliar. Even when I have been afraid, I have leaped into new experiences my whole life, like I did in that puddle of water. I was born with a bold essence, but had my wings been clipped at an early age with fear and limitations, I may not have fulfilled the fullness of my essence.

A lot of the ways in which we react and behave in the world come from our subconscious memories and thoughts. Only about 10% of our thoughts are conscious. And these subconscious thoughts are the beliefs and messages, we aren’t even aware of, that were programmed into us at an early age up until about the first seven years of our lives. Our subconscious mind resides in the body, so conscious thought alone does not help us to access this part of our selves.

But one thing I have learned as a storyteller is that our stories are important, as insignificant as they may seem, they have played a huge role in shaping our perceptions and interaction with the world. Most importantly, they hold a key to our subconscious healing.

When stories like the one I just wrote arise, seemingly out of nowhere, I think it’s important to sit with them, write them down, feel where in your body they come from, and figure out what your body is asking you to reaffirm and/or release.

This is an example of positive messaging I received when I was growing up and how it helped to shape me into someone who sees beyond fear and limitations. But what about the programming I received that set the path for more limiting and self-destructive behaviors?

I will share a story about this as well, and how through that story I discovered patterns of beliefs manifested in behaviors that kept me stuck and unhappy.

Where does our will come from?

My whole life I’d received messages that will was the ability to take action and “stick with it,” especially if it was something I did not want to do and/or was difficult.  The ideas that surrounded the concept of will were ideas of sacrifice, struggle and discipline.  And I’m not saying that these aspects aren’t important components of manifesting will, but I have come to learn, they are not the driving force of will.  And they certainly do not create long-lasting change.

Knowing something is good for me is not enough to give me the drive and empowerment I need to catapult myself toward what I wish to create.  Breaking old patterns and deprogramming behaviors and thoughts that harm me, keep me feeling stuck, or even worse, prevent my evolution, require I touch something profoundly within that ignites sparks of desire, power, purpose and self-love. These are the forces of combustion that propel me into movement and action to manifest my will. 

The dictionary definition of will is:

  1. The faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.
  2. A deliberate or fixed desire or intention.
  3. Control deliberately exerted to do something or to restrain one’s own impulses.

It is through our will that we liberate ourselves from fixed patterns and create new behavior, which leads us to fulfill our greatest visions.  Think about how many times you tried to force yourself to do something you actually really wanted?  Doesn’t that sound like a paradox?  Let me explain.  There are things we want in our lives, aspects of our selves we want to develop.  We legitimately want and yearn for these things.  However, We enter into relationships with these things we want to accomplish through force and control.  We want the results, but the work and effort it takes to get the results are things we loath and resist.  Why?  Because the means is as important as the results when it comes to changing our behaviors, attitudes and ultimately our lives.

Take exercise and wight-loss, two of the most dreaded goals people who are trying to break unhealthy habits embark on.  First of all, I used to set these unattainable goals for myself that would make me lose confidence right away and lure me into cycles of self-criticism and self-recrimination. I thought all I needed to make changes was to commit and follow through on my commitment.  But my power to achieve lied in discipline, control and manipulation.  While discipline is necessary to accomplish most things, it is another aspect of control over separate parts if there is not an internal agreement with the body and mind.  True will requires deep communication with the self.

We feel guilty for things we do or don’t do based on perception of what others are doing. This, sometimes, more than our will drives us to action.  Unfortunately true lasting dedication and change only comes from true will.  So where does our will come from?

For those who pay special attention to their chakra energy centers, the initial task of the third chakra is to overcome inertia.  In other words, the first step of exerting our will is to gather enough motivation and initiative to begin.  In physics, inertia refers to the tendency of an object to remain in the state it is in.  The hardest part is getting started.   The second hardest part is continuing the momentum; in other words sustaining inertia, our will.  Often we approach the things we want to achieve from a place of control, but control eventually eats away at our enthusiasm and changes our attitude to one of obligation and burden rather than engagement.  This depletes our self-empowerment and robs us of  autonomy, therein creating resistance to the very thing we had set out to do.  A paradox, indeed!

One important aspect of  gathering enough motivation and initiative to “begin” is to reconnect with self in a loving and accepting way. To become in touch with our bodies, passions and pleasures.  To learn how to love ourselves, giving ourselves room to breathe, to explore, to make mistakes, to be imperfect against what we perceive to be perfection.

Today I asked my body what she needed,

Which is a big deal

Considering my journey of

Not Really Asking That Much

 

I though she might need more water.

Or protein.

Or greens.

Or yoga.

Or supplements.

Or movement.

 

But as I stood in the shower

Reflecting on her stretch marks,

Her roundness where I would like flatness,

Her softness where I would like firmness,

All those conditional wishes

That form a bundle of

Never-Quite-Right-Ness

She whispered very gently:

 

Could you just love me like this?

 

-Hollie Holden

The power within grows as we build energy in our bodies, and that energy grows with our ability to connect, to merge, to nourish ourselves from what surrounds us. This why exploring and discovering our pleasures and passions is so important.  Salsa is like flying for me – there is so much freedom and joy in it.  When I hear the music, my feet my hips, my arms and my shoulders completely submit to it and this pure, unrestricted and powerful energy just takes over and flows through my whole being.  In those moments, there are no limitations, no doubts, no self-criticism, no inhibitions.  Just a surge of pure joy! There can be a hundred people around me, but I feel like a hummingbird flying through the vast sky.  I completely come out of my thoughts and step into the infinity of my life.

This, too, is part of my healing; my ability to feel emotions beyond my fears and pain.  To live life beyond the struggle and sacrifice I (we) have often been taught to exist in.  And live it without shame or guilt or hesitation. Healing is multi-layered and multi-dimensional.  Some of it is about immersing ourselves in the pain in order to understand it, process it and release it.  Sometimes our healing is about taking our pain and experiences and using that to manifest our creativity in beautiful and inspirational ways.  Sometimes it’s about bonding with friends and family and filling up with love and connectedness.  Sometimes it’s talking to a professional that helps us unravel all the tangled and confusion,  so we have a place to start.  Other times it’s about re-membering our ancestral wisdom and traditions.  And sometimes it’s doing things that remind us how beautifully intoxicating and electrifying life can be.  We gotta let ourselves be lured by the sweet, tantalizing energy of life.  Not as an escape, but as a reintroduction to the life we were given before this world suppressed it.

When we are actively engaging with the world, we are breaking the cycle of fear and withdrawal, immersing ourselves in more dynamic and profound lives.  Then, we can better direct our lives toward that which we love, that which ignites us, challenges us and renews us.  This is where our will comes from.

It wasn’t the lack of will to exercise or to lose weight that was the obstacle, it was not moving my body in ways that excited and engaged me.  Now, losing weight is a by-product of doing things I really love.  In order for our will to be engaged, we must also be in touch with our desires. How can we exert our will, if we don’t know what we want.

Yes, discipline is important.  But even discipline becomes another aspect of control if the is not an internal agreement within the mind and body, and that only comes with listening to our deepest desires as a way to discover our purpose.  Knowledge of the will, with its infinite and constant choices from a deeper sense of purpose.  If we are unclear about our purpose, then it’s hard to know just what our will is in a given situation.  The task of our consciousness is to accurately assess who we are, for within that mystery lies the purpose our will must address.  And knowing who we are comes from the reciprocal process of looking deep within and engaging with the world.

“A big part of willpower is having something to aspire to, something to live for.”         Mark Shuttleworth

 

 

 

 

 

A is for Love

D is a prison inmate that looks like an “original veterano” and he has the essence of a kind and mischievous, but stern, abuelo. He made me laugh so much this past weekend when I facilitated healing workshops.

On the third day he told me he had been working in the kitchen that morning. Sorting apple and other fruits into various bins. As he was rolling the apples into bins, it dawned on him he had never given an apple to a teacher. He said, “teachers didn’t like me, you know.” I was a little troublemaker and I missed a lot of school, so when they saw me, they’d immediately send me to the principle’s office.” He then said, “but you’re the first teacher I want to give an apple to.” He gestured with his index finger for me to wait and with his half gangsta-lean, half grandpa-limp, he walked with a little pep toward where he had sat his things down. He came back toward me holding an apple in his hand, proud and gleaming.

This gesture brought tears to my eyes. Not because it was a gift to me, but because I was seeing in D the young kid who had been alienated and shunned from school. Who was labeled a trouble maker from a young age. Whose dark skin and accent made him the “other.” His path could have been different if just one teacher, one adult, would have seen him. Seen his worth – his caring, humorous and creative essence.

We can’t just love our students when they are behaving and turning in their assignments. We gotta love them when they are deeply pained and broken, too.

Our most misbehaved children, the ones with excessive absences and zeros in the grade book, are the ones who feel the most hurt, broken and marginalized. It’s hard to get them to show up, and when they do, they often times find themselves being shamed and berated by teachers.

We have to love our students despite their hurt and trauma. We don’t have to humiliate them or make them feel inferior in order to hold them to higher expectations. Sometimes all they need is the one teacher, the one adult, that is willing to walk in solidarity with them.

One teacher can break the school-to-prison pipeline for that one kid.

We won’t move forward without love.

In recent weeks I’ve been hit with various experiences that have left me thinking about what it is going to take to create a world that is more just and equitable for everyone.  I posted a reflection about my experience last week in facilitating a workshop for prison inmates. Someone replied that “those animals deserved to be in prison,” and then dared me to try living with them.

A few weeks ago some of my family members began posting hateful, homophobic and dehumanizing posts about the caravan of asylum-seekers that made their way from Honduras to Tijuana in order to request asylum from the U.S. government at the Tijuana/San Ysidro port of entry.  Many of these family members themselves are immigrants seeking a more permanent status in the United States.  I couldn’t understand their rhetoric, much of it very similar to the anti-immigrant rhetoric used in the United States. How could migrants dehumanize other migrants? How could people sharing in the same plight trample on the human rights of others?

My daughter who is Afro-Latina listened to one of her co-workers discuss why she would never be able to bring a dark or black baby home.  I’m not sure what made her think it was okay to express these ideas to my daughter.  Another co-worker, when asked if she’d ever date a black guy, paused and quickly responded she just “wasn’t attracted to them.”  I can’t imagine all the wounds that were triggered in my daughter.  And no matter what I said to console her, what she heard had already harmed her. Those ideas seep deep down into the subconscious, even when you try to insulate yourself from them, and tear away at your self-worth.

Just yesterday, I was invited to an event by a family member I have not spoken to in a while.  She has very ant-immigrant ideas and is not a supporter of gay rights.  She is married to and has children with someone who came to the United States as an undocumented migrant.  She also claims that she has many friends and family members that are gay.  She says that her political views Are separate from the relationship she carries with people who are gay or undocumented.  But it is very difficult for me to reconcile how she can love and care for people and have ideas and vote in ways that impact them negatively.  I don’t know how to navigate the pain and confusion that invokes in me.  I don’t want to alienate myself from family members who do not have the same beliefs of compassion and inclusion that I do, but it’s also difficult to have a relationship with someone with whom I can’t show up as my full self. As I’m sure it is also difficult for them.

In the instance of the person that left such a dehumanizing comment about prison inmates on my post, I decided to erase his comment and block him from accessing my account.  In the case of my family members, I had to speak truthfully to them, and let them know that I was an ally to both the migrant and refugee community as well as the gay community.  I told them that my home was open to friends and activists from these communities in the same manner it has been open to my family – to support and serve through love and inclusion.  I invited them to join me In the volunteer work I do to meet folks in these communities and listen to their stories.  But I received no response.

When I spoke with my truth, I wasn’t speaking with the intent to change their minds.  In this polarized political climate we are living across the globe, I have seen that everyone’s got their heels dug pretty deeply into the sand.  I also understand the fear-mongering rhetoric used strategically by the media to create division and “othering” among groups fighting for access to the same Benefits and resources.  This is what happens when propaganda is used to convince the working poor, and even the middle class, to blame a subset of the working poor for the fact they’re all poor and / or struggling instead of realizing the reason they are all struggling is because of income inequality, price inflation, theft and privatization of natural resources, in combination with wage exploitation and stagnation. But the existence of another poor person is not why people are poor.

I spoke up because I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror and know that I am not staying silent  in the face of injustice and hate.  I cannot, I refuse to operate under the same fear that drives people to alienate and hate others. I have to speak my truth for the sake of love. Love for my family and love for the those who are marginalized and suffering.

There  is a resolve and inner power that grows inside of me when I speak my truth with compassion and love. My healing journey has led me to a place where I feel deep love for people, whether it is the students, the prisoners, the migrants, or anyone else I encounter or serve. That kind of love I feel  looks like empathy for their struggles, solidarity for their plight, but most importantly a deep sense of wanting the best for them. It is the drive within me to share in and encourage the self-realization of another person. It feels like wanting to be part of uplifting and inspiring others to believe in a more beautiful life for themselves and creating spaces where we can find healing together through our stories and lessons.

When I refer to love, I don’t refer to the sentimental and anemic manifestation of love driven by guilt or lack of inner-power. At its root, love is the drive for unity of the separated, connection of the isolated and creation of the destroyed. Love in a sense is the drive to connect and make whole that which has become or appears fragmented. It is expansive, all-encompassing and based on the well-being of the individual as a part of the whole. When you can see yourself in others, you begin to operate from a level of consciousness that allows you to see and feel the inextricable intertwined humanity in all of us.

Will Smith was recently asked how he defines love. In response, he created a short video that defines love as follows:

 

 

“At its core, love is help. Everybody is having a hard time, so it’s really devotion to their struggle. It’s when you’re committed to helping somebody with their life. Helping someone to suffer less. Helping them to manage their minds and their emotions. It’s a deep desire for our loved one’s growth and their blossoming and their all around well-being. When you love someone, you want them to feel good and you want them to feel happy. You want to see them succeed in life. Love really demands an in-depth understanding of their hopes and dreams and fears and their needs and trauma. Love is giving and sharing our gifts for the purpose of nurturing and empowering them and helping them to create their greatest joys.”

This is such a beautiful and powerful definition of love. Our goal must be to make the love we feel so expansive and inclusive, that we feel like this for every person we encounter, especially those filled with so much pain and hate.

In my reflection about the healing work I engage in, in prison, I wrote about Dan, a prison inmate that looks like an “original veterano” and has the essence of a kind and mischievous, but stern, “abuelo.” He made me laugh so much.

On the third day of the workshops he told me he had been working in the kitchen that morning. Sorting apples and other fruits into various bins. As he was rolling the apples into bins, it dawned on him he had never given an apple to a teacher. He said, “teachers didn’t like me, you know. I was a little troublemaker and I missed a lot of school, so when they saw me, they’d immediately send me to the principle’s office.” He then said, “but you’re the first teacher I want to give an apple to.” He gestured with his index finger for me to wait and with his half gangsta-lean, half grandpa-limp, he walked with a little pep toward where he had sat his things down. He came back toward me holding an apple in his hand, proud and gleaming.

This gesture brought tears to my eyes. Not because it was a gift to me, but because I was seeing in Dan the young kid who had been alienated and shunned from school. Who was labeled a trouble maker from a young age. Whose dark skin and accent made him the “other.” His path could have been different if just one teacher, one adult, would have seen him. Seen his worth – his caring, humorous and creative essence.

We can’t just love our students when they are behaving and turning in their assignments. We gotta love them when they are deeply pained and broken, too.  Our most misbehaved children, the ones with excessive absences and zeros in the grade book, are the ones who feel the most hurt, broken and marginalized. It’s hard to get them to show up, and when they do, they often times find themselves being shamed and berated by teachers.

We have to love people  despite their hurt and trauma. We don’t have to humiliate them or make them feel inferior in order to hold them to higher expectations or hold them accountable for their actions.  There is a magic that occurs when we give a person just enough comfort to be themselves.  When we practice empathy, we allow space for another to be more of themselves and fulfill the highest version of themselves.

So where was I going with this?  There is nothing I can say to convince people to be more empathic or caring.  No logical argument or explanation to show them why migrants or prisoners or disruptive students or homeless folks deserve better.  People who are deeply prejudice and racist have an emotional commitment to ignorance.  Usually that is driven by their own pain and anger.  All I can do is speak up when I see hate and organize and create with folks who are actively working to do good and lessen the suffering of others.  It is only in the opening of our hearts that we are able to feel the suffering of others and be moved to do better by them.  We are trapped in an ideology of borders, and walls, and scarcity, and competition. Many don’t seem to be able to transcend  these limitations.  The marginalized are marginalized more, the poor are blamed more and those with deep traumas are punished more.  We are trapped in a systemic maze that keeps us separated and blaming each other for our struggles, rather than building capacity and collaborating to uplift each other.  The world and our conditions in it demands that we engage with solidarity and cooperation.

I’m not here to save the world.  I am here to help it heal with my compassion and actions rooted in love. We must break all the old paradigms and beliefs that keeps us tied to the illusion that we are separate, and this work must be done from within. We cannot force someone to see what they have not experienced within. “If an egg is broken by outside force, life ends.  If broken by inside force, life begins.” -Buddha  Great things always begin from inside.  It is the deep love that we hold for another person that allows them to feel safe enough to open up. A rose, when embraced long enough by the warmth of the sun, has no other choice but to unclench its bud and let the light in.

I cannot be so arrogant as to believe that I can control when and how someone will open their hearts. I can only do my own work by creating in me that which I want to see magnified in the world.  It is difficult, I must confess, to see those that are hurt, hurt others, especially people in power such correctional officers, teachers, social workers, psychologists, and cops working with very vulnerable populations. We project our wounds on to others, particularly those whose stories and experiences mirror our own.

I am reminded of wise words written by Dr. Jaiya John, “You cannot punish (or force) a person into healing and growth.  Only love can do that.”   This does not mean we are not held accountable for our actions, but it does mean that we are called upon to restore the harm we have caused through love – the kind that disintegrates the illusion of separateness.  When you can no longer feel a difference between you and the other person.

“The alchemist is one who transforms all energies into higher frequencies of light and love.  They are the bringers of a new dawn, transmuting the old paradigms into a higher intelligence and order.  They act solely for the highest good of all.  Love is the only master they answer to.”

“ Take only memories, leave only footprints.” Chief Seattle Part II

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” – Anthony Bourdain

A photo essay and reflections of my experiences in the Volta region of Ghana.

KENTE WEAVING // An ancestrales and cultural art that has been practiced for over 400 years. Over the years there has been many stories surrounding the origin of the Kente Cloth. But there is one story that stands out amongst the folk tales told by our forefathers by the fire side under the light of the moon when it’s dusk. And that’s the story of the mystical spider and two hunters.

According to folk tale, the hunters from the village of Bonwire in the Ashanti Region in the 17th century, came across a spider while hunting. The spider had woven a web and the two brothers were astound by the intricate design of the web so they decided to replicate the when they get back to their village.

So they returned to the village and replicated the technique and pattern of the spider’s web using fibers from a raffia tree. Since they had no previous experience in weaving, the outcome of their experiment looked like a basket. And a basket is called “Kenten” in the local dialect (TWI). And that’s how the cloth got the name KENTE. The skill was later perfected by the village folks and was now adopted as by royals. Royals wore kente to ceremonies and gatherings to make a strong royal point with just their appearance.

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Behold this beauty.

Beauty is not just carried in the physical. It is in the details, in the eyes, in the stories, in the medicine and song that each person carries. I am finding so much sacredness and beauty in this place.

“I lost a whole continent.

a whole continent from my memory.

unlike all other hyphenated americans

my hyphen is made up of blood. feces. bone.

when africa says hello

my mouth is a heartbreak.

because i have nothing in my tongue

to answer her.

i do not know how to say hello to my mother”

-nayyirah waheed

They say she appeared from inside the wall. To remind the visitors of this slave fort that her spirit has always been indomitable, resilient and indestructible. To be re-membered and re-rooted to the land from which she was taken. She is the life-line between that land and those who have yet to re-member. She waits, dignified, for her children to find their way back.

She embodies the spirit of Mama Ga, the great mother; the matriarch and wise elder of the community. She rises from this place once used as a torture chamber and dungeon for slaves awaiting the Middle Passage. She rises from the screams of desperation and cries of heartbreak that still haunt this place. She rises from the chains that once shackled and tortured her body. She Rises. She Rises. So her children can rise, too.

Still I Rise, Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Slave Fort // Keta, Ghana

It was initially built by Danish traders in 1784. 59 out of the 64 slave forts built on the Western coast of Africa were built in Ghana. This one was built by the Danish. It was particularly brutal to women.

Women kidnapped on their way to or from market or the fields were often tortured and raped into submission. Women who resisted were tortured by being chained in a camel pose position, forcing them to face the sun during the hottest time of the day. Some women were chained like this for days without any water or food.

Women bathed while the Slave traders watched them from atop. Slave traders lived atop of the fort because they had a bird’s-eye view of the fort and could better anticipate any Insurgents trying to liberate their loved ones; and there was a direct breeze from the ocean which made their living quarters much cooler.

Women were usually made to bathe after they were raped or after their menstruation cycle. Because Keta is surrounded by salt water, the Keta Lagoon on one side and ocean on the other, fresh drinking water was hard to come by, especially when it wasn’t rainy season. For this reason, slaves were mad to drink the water they bathed in.

Standing there, imagining the brutality that was being described to me, was very painful. I don’t understand what someone’s heart must be made of, to do these things, but whatever it is, I have learned that human beings have an undeniable capacity to hate and destroy. It scared me. I froze. I began to hear the screams, the clanking of the shackles, the roaring of the waves, the silence of the night, the fury of the sun, the grunts of the monsters, the memories of the forgotten, the supplications of the stolen, the grieving of the lost. It made me dizzy. Nauseous with disgust. The hot air suffocated me. I fell to my knees. I surrendered in prayer. I couldn’t find the why. Still can’t.

As I left the slave fort, and walked toward the ocean, I saw flowers beginning to grow around the perimeter of this once dungeonous sight of horrific dehumanization. Flowers, like hope and resilience, resurrecting from bodies buried under oyster shells and charcoal. I saw life.

I got to work with some pretty amazing folks. I not only fell in love with the land, but I also fell in love with the people. Our capacity to hold love is huge, vast and limitless. The more my heart opens, the less fearful I am to connect with people and new experiences. Each person is like a drop of nurturing, life-giving water that feeds the roots of my soul. In each person I found a reflection of myself. Through my interactions with them, I discovered a more deeper side of me; a more authentic side. And the illusion of separation disintegrated a little more. I saw each person in me, and me in each person. “There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.” -Vincent Van Gogh

Slave Fort // Keta, Ghana

It was initially built by Danish traders in 1784. “The waves here are so intense,” said one of the students. Maybe it’s because they are angry. They hold the memory of the pain and brutality the Anlo and Ewe people experienced. They rage against the shore line screaming the bonded pain of the ancestors, so we won’t forget. “Why did they treat people this badly…it would not have cost them any extra to treat them better,” commented a naive student. But to treat them any better would have required to see them as human. You can’t see as human someone who you are going to work 19 hours a day like a machine in the hot sun. You can’t see as human someone who you kidnap and rip from their family and their homeland. You can’t see as human someone you buy as property. You have to see them as less than animals, dehumanize a people completely, in order to to do to them what was done to the people who were enslaved.

Tough conversations with students who “had no idea.” If we could only dedicate as much time in our history books and classes to understanding the psychology and dehumanization behind the Atlantic Slave Trade as we do topics like the Holocaust…

What historians and teachers choose to exclude is also part of the dehumanizing process. Erasing history is part of the structural violence that continues to oppress the Black diaspora.

“My ancestors have been waiting for someone with my strength to carry their name.” @witchdoctorpoet

Slave Fort // Keta, Ghana // est. 1784

This is an actual scale used to weigh the people kidnapped in the Volta region of Ghana by the Danish right before they were loaded on to slave ships.

Owners of slave ships did their best to hold as many enslaved people as possible by cramming, chaining, and selectively grouping slaves to maximize space and make travel more profitable. Slaves onboard were underfed and treated brutally causing many to die before even arriving at their destination.

Slaves were weighed to determine if they were strong enough to endure the horrific conditions of the Middle Passage. “The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest movement of people in history. Between 10 and 15 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic between 1500 and 1900. But this figure grossly understates the actual number of Africans enslaved, killed, or displaced as a result of the slave trade. At least 2 million Africans–10 to 15 percent–died during the infamous “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic. Another 15 to 30 percent died during the march to or confinement along the coast. Altogether, for every 100 slaves who reached the New World, another 40 had died in Africa or during the Middle Passage.”

Ghana // Rainbow Lizard

In Ghana, like in many parts of the world, those closest to the land, tell stories and teach lessons using nature as our greatest teacher.

A wise man named Bellah told me that the lizard is very agile at climbing and it can easily climb its way up a tree, no matter how tall that tree. However when the lizard has been disturbed or senses danger in that tree, he will fall from the tree to the ground. And once on the ground, he will praise himself by nodding his head.

I asked how did they know he was praising himself? The wise man responded, “ because only he knows what happened in that tree. Only he knows where he came from and what he had to do to survive. It may look like he is crazy falling off the tree like that, but only he knows. So he waits for no one to praise him. He praises himself.” That is how Bellah explained Sankofa, one of the Adinkra symbols in Ghana. It represents the concept of looking back before moving forward. We must know where and from whom we come from before we can truly understand where we are going and why.

The children here smile so immensely when they see you. As if they haven’t seen you for a long time and miss you and want to pour their unconditional love all over you. Maybe that’s why Americans and other Westerners who come here fall in love with the children, immediately.

We come from a place with so many expectations, so many messages of unworthiness, so much judgment and criticism. And all of a sudden, we are loved unconditionally, accepted fully and embraced wholly by children who are connecting with us for the first time.

They are full of so much life and light. They are healing. They are God-sent, like walking prayers. They are a pure manifestation of love.

Market // Asi in Ewe

Sunbird // Ghana

Valió la pena esta vida hermosa, extraordinaria, alegre, triste y dolorosa. Al final todo lo vivido, todo lo hecho valió la pena. El haber arriesgado, aveces ganado, aveces perdido me dio el coraje, la fortaleza y el valor de haber vivido llenamente. No hay sabor más rico, más puro que el sabor de la vida.

En cada momento e tratado de estar llena de vida, de sentir profundamente y de conectarme a cada célula de vida que existe en esta tierra.

E amado y dado todo con miedo de perderlo, pero nunca deje que el miedo me extinguiera. En cada momento vivo despierta, atenta a los regalos extraordinarios de la vida y trato de encontrar estos regalos hasta en lo rutinario. Soy una llama que se enciende cada día más. Algún día esta llama me consumirá y me convertiré en parte de todo, mas nunca seré extinguida.

It’s been worth it – this beautiful, extraordinary, joyful, sad, and painful life. At the end, all that’s been lived, all that’s been accomplished, has made this life worth living. Having taken risks, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, has given me the courage and the strength to live to the fullest. There’s no taste more delicious and more pure than the taste of life.

I have loved and given fully even when I feared losing it all. I’ve never allowed my fear to extinguish me. In every moment I live awakened, attentive to the extraordinary gifts of life, and I try to find these gifts even in the routine and ordinary. I am a flame that burns more brightly everyday. Some day this flame will consume me and return me to all that is, but I will never be extinguished.

Follow your Spirit…it will lead you to where you are meant to be

“Take Only memories, leave only footprints.” Chief Seattle Part I

A photo essay and reflections of my experiences in the Volta region of Ghana.

“Africa, more than any other continent, needs to be seen by the world. It’s both the place we all come from and where we are going.”

-Anthony Bourdain

This is Bellah. He is the Director and docent of the Prenzenstein Slave Fort in Keta, Ghana. In my first visit to the fort, I was lucky enough to be the only one there. Upon my entrance, I asked Bellah, who I was meeting for the first time, If I could have a time of prayer. He left me alone. I drew a medicine wheel on the ground and prayed to the four directions asking the ancestors for permission to be there, for guidance in honoring a place where so many died, and inspiration for connecting and feeling the lessons I was supposed to learn.

Bellah guided me through the painful experiences of the fort. We cried and had deep conversations and prayed some more. I felt the spirit and the strength and will of the the Ewe people that were once enslaved in that fort. He sang and chanted beautiful traditional songs of resistance and resilience of the Ewe’s.

Toward the end of my visit, he showed me the circle with the four directions the Ewe people prayed to. He then went to buy me a Calabash bowl and cassava and maize powder. He showed me how to mix the powder with water inside the bowl while he chanted in Ewe. We then prayed together and poured a libation to honor and thank the ancestors for my time their and our encounter. Though I only spent 3 hours with Bellah that day, the connection I made with him was as if I had known him forever.

On my last day in Ghana, I went back and sat with him under a beautiful, abundant tree located in front of the entrance to the fort. He told me stories and let me absorb them in silence. His presence was healing and compassionate. His gentleness put me at ease, inviting me to just be from the deepest part of myself.

There are people that come into our lives and transform us in ways we may never totally understand. I will see Bellah again, but for now, I carry him in my heart and spirit.

Volta River // Ghana

It is a beautiful sight and experience to witness the synchronicity and connection of people to the land. This is why, no matter what part of the world I find myself in, I always gravitate to the countryside and pueblitos.

There is a magic that happens when there is a reciprocal and respectful relationship with the land. She is generous, giving and abundant. All we need, she provides. And I often find myself contemplating the simplicity and accessibility of living in the countryside, from the land. All the material wealth one works for in the city seems to become irrelevant when one is surrounded by luxuriant fields, robust rivers, vast lakes, and rich fruit trees. I can’t help but to wonder and reflect about what it is I truly need to be joyful and content in life.

Having been raised most of my life in the hustle and bustle of the city; watching the people around me grind to survive and still not have enough; watching people have enough, but still live from a perspective of scarcity; I am shifting in my knowing of what is necessary and what is superfluous. What is truly a part of my livelihood are the things that bring me closer to the pure, unrestricted energy of life.

The earth and our connection to it isn’t just about grounding ourselves and finding balance. When we surrender to her and intentionally hold a relationship with her, we are saying we trust her to hold us through our pain and difficulties, to heal us in our wounds and fears, to sustain us with what we need to thrive and fulfill our greatest lives. I want to know her and learn her more deeply the way I saw the fisherman do on the day this photograph was taken.

Sunbird // Ghana “When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it is bottomless, that it doesn’t have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast and limitless. “ -Pena Chödrön

Both pain and joy teach us compassion. Both allow our hearts to be touched. The thing is, we have to be willing to feel them both, fully.

The drums tell stories, too. The ancestors speak through the drums. It is their heart beat connecting with ours.

This precious baby, Anam, which means “gift” in the Ewe language, stole my heart. Her whole family did. They all have a loving, gentle, warm and nurturing spirit. She started coming around, first. Her family’s farm is across from the home base I stayed at. She’d come to the gate and wait patiently until someone noticed her. The students I mentored would become so excited to see her. She was one of many kids who often came around, but her spirit definitely stood out. She’d often climb on one of the students’ laps and fall asleep or sit quietly sharing her peaceful energy with them.

One particular morning she was surrounded by all the women in her family from young to elderly, and they all smiled and laughed as they heard our students calling to Anam on their way to service learning. I think they knew Anam had won our hearts over.

Anam truly lives up to her name. Ewe names have deep significance and the name that is given to a child is a blessing from his/her parents and ancestors. A child is honored with the name in a “Naming Ceremony,” also known as Vinehedego in which the whole family and community, including elders and chiefs come together to recognize and welcome the child into the village. This is an Ewe tradition that goes back hundreds of years.

The child is not taken out of the home until he/she has been honored with their name. The rite is performed on the 8th day of the child’s birth. During the “Naming Ceremony,” libation is offered while the child’s name is being mentioned.

Then the child is given to taste the following:

(1) Water which represents the life the child has been given.

(2) Salt which teaches the child that not everything in life will be sweet and he/she will have to learn how to overcome the struggles. (3) Honey which teaches the child to remember the goodness of life despite the struggles.

(4) Gin which teaches the child to call things by their name. To be truthful – to instill in the child a consciousness of morality.

In essence, every person with an Ewe name is a walking prayer, a blessing sent from Spirit. It was evident in Anam and the lesson she taught us about living life in a gentle and peaceful way.

59 out of the 64 slave forts built on the western coast of Africa were built in Ghana. This one was built by the Danish. It was particularly brutal to women.

A game of marbles // Recess

I saw so much sacredness in the area of Ghana I was in. In part because it’s here among the people, and in part, because it’s in me. The more I have discovered my own sacredness, the more I see it all around me and the connection I have with all that is.

This particular morning, I was walking to the beach, passing along many of the cassava and chile farms. Early mornings create a deep intimacy with the land and people, here. The illusion of separation disintegrates at dawn when life is simultaneously awakened in everything. You can feel the life force as one. The bird songs dress the dawn with joy. The sunrise greets life. The earth grows, reaching her arms to the sky.

Women intuitively in sync with the life that comes from the earth and the life that comes from within. Women who understand that life is delicate, vulnerable and formidable.

What a gift to have seen and felt life this deeply in the countryside of Ghana.