[symple_testimonial by=”Audre Lorde” fade_in=”false”]“Caring for myself is not self indulgence, it is self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
A Burst of Light: Essays[/symple_testimonial]
This is a long-time-coming letter, erupting like a dormant volcano, stirred and spurred by a convening of women’s human rights activists in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and held in Batumi on the edge of the Black Sea.
It’s a surreal series of flights on smallish planes hopping from London to Riga to Minsk to Batumi that brings me to the convening. By the time I arrive in Minsk it’s late at night and all that greets me is an endless configuration of grey, unoccupied seats in the transfer lounge. I wander over to another area where two structures akin to four poster beds sit incongruously in the middle of the grey compound and next to them are a child sized table and chairs and a gloriously colored pup tent complete with rocket chute.
Settling myself in one of the beds, in an Alice in Wonderland like moment, a woman suddenly materializes before me and informs me that this is part of Etihad’s lounge and am I a member? Am I a member, I wonder out loud, looking in vain for signs of what I associate with an airline lounge. “In any case, you can join for a few hours,” says the woman deciding for me and my gratitude knows no bounds as I curl up for a ‘kip’ so tired and needing a flat line bed.
At last we take flight and then finally I’m in Batumi, on an ink black night and me in an altered state. I sleepwalk through registration and fall into my bed and to a brief and welcome sleep. I wake to the alarm and to our planning day for the convening, pull the curtains across and stare at the view.
The sea!! The sea!!
(eternal) divine, ethereal, sublime…the constancy of the sea, my elemental home.
I am beside myself with joy in this moment and later, after our planning is done, I reclaim this lightness as I skip waves in my boots and fossick for colored stones as runes for rituals and stories.
At our planning session we spend time with the facilitators, one of whom is an experienced trainer in integral security, as a concept of security that goes beyond just the physical protection of the individual. It takes into account the need to feel safe at home, at work and on the street, as well as integrating the physical and psychological well-being of women’s human rights defenders. It’s the first time in my experience that a convening such as this is so fully grounded and informed by the principles of self-care.
As we commence our convening, we gather in a circle in a room with lots of pillows and mats and for the next three days we take up space across the room with our bodies sprawled out in various positions. It’s such a celebration of this free flow space where we are able to choose with our bodies as well as our minds how we occupy this space.
My mind expands in this space – I connect different thought patterns and make leaps of association in relation to ideas and issues. I think back to the children in the refugee camps in Lebanon who could dream again, experience the reawakening of their spirit life, after doing yoga classes created by a woman who believed in the immense power of body and movement therapy.
During this convening time, we hear from so many women’s human rights defenders and activists who speak of exhaustion and burnout from their work and of the irony of advocating for the safety and security of others while our own bodies fall to pieces. At a time when civil society spaces, and spaces for women’s organizing, are closing down it seems important to find ways to find, fund and affirm the importance of these spaces.
We hear too from speakers whose work has been criminalized by the government and where any travel is dangerous. “When I return home I will be invited to the police office, I will be fingerprinted, I will be sent to the HIV office. I will be interrogated to find out where I went and why I went and how I went,” one speaker said.
“I didn’t realize how much I needed this time until I got here,” said one woman. “I didn’t think we should meet in some fancy hotel but now I realize that having soft beds and spa access is probably exactly what I needed after time in the field,” said another.
Women often seem to experience a sense of guilt when we focus attention on our own need for rest and restoration believing it somehow less worthy than the heartbreaking and devastating stories and situations of women and girls in other countries.
We don’t often enough recognize that we are affirming the right to physical and mental wellbeing of women globally when each of us take responsibility for our own rest and wellbeing.
Self-care is a political act.
If I had the funds I’d create a Center for Women’s Deep Rest that would be available to women activists and to other leaders in transition. A center for women’s deep sleep and healing, with crayons and paints and strings and clay and instruments available for play time and expression.
What a radical concept, no reports, presentations or training sessions, just a focus on restoration and rejuvenation in recognition of the incredible contribution, talent and expertise of these women, and the desire that they again be able to play a creative and active role in their communities and movements.
Where women can reclaim their playful, joyful selves and rediscover their beauty and complexity in and beyond their activist selves and learn to ensure that rest and recovery time are part of their daily lives and rhythm.
I wish the same for other leaders who are facing a time of transition in order to support them to do this from a position of strength – or at least the aikido idea of strength in the form of flow and surrender. For me, the question continues to be how to find a role where I can practice transformative leadership, without compromising my sense of community, home, and connection to nature.
How to be close to family in Australia, with my parents getting older and wanting to be close to them, and to my brother and close friends, while doing the work I love in the world that is mainly outside of Australia and being steeped in nature to infuse my soul. And in a global environment that increasingly rewards managerialism, how to hold fast to my big dreaming self?
I listen to an interview with my favorite broadcaster, Phillip Adams, where he reflects on his broadcasting role and says
“We are so bloody privileged to be working at the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) at the one place that actually encourages ideas. We complexify rather than simplify to a slogan, we embroider. It’s not a binary world, issues aren’t yes or no, they are infinitely complex and we have the great joy, the great privilege of working in that context.”
And so it is with women’s movements and women’s human rights activism. The work of challenging and changing structures and systems is deep and long term and necessary. We have to be strong to stay the course in holding ground and gaining ground and in supporting a new generation of activists and advocates.
I recently spent time with graduate students at the University of Berkeley at a session that was supposed to be about career advice on getting involved in women’s human rights movement building and ended up being a deeper dive discussion after a student asked me what one of my biggest lessons in my work life had been.
“Not giving up my own power,” I said
“What does that mean?” asked one student.
“In essence, don’t sabotage your own potential at the very moment where forces converge to take you to a new point in your leadership and influence.
Hold on to that opportunity and influence while being inclusive of others.
Claim this power, as good and vital power and use it as a springboard to realize your vision and direction.”
Back at the convening, I remember a powerful storytelling session I had with a narrative therapist where he encouraged me to imagine an animal totem that I could relate to and then to describe myself in the skin of this creature. I responded by saying I could see myself bounding like an impala across the landscape and my body was leaping with love of life. Like the image of Sybil Shearer, my favorite dancer, and her high, ecstatic leaping in a deeply intuitive response to the natural environment which stoked her creativity.
What would stoke my creativity?
Work with my hands
Draw with my color crayons
Write poetry on my boat
Join artist India Flint in her textile workshop in New Mexico
Go to a month long yoga retreat at the Sanctuary at Mission Beach
Sleep long and dreamily in Piccadilly
Embrace leadership in a way that more swiftly gets funds and power into the hands of women in communities including seed funding for those women and women’s movements who just need the funds to begin a dream.
Seed funding is as precious as funding to help those wanting to extend and scale their work.
I want to reclaim those lost parts of myself that my dearest mentor, Stella, asked me about. She knew the cost and she knew the rewards when we paid attention to this.
I greet the sea one final time, seeking my eternal threes – three has always been my lucky number. I don’t really know which stones I’ll be drawn to, only that it feels like an alchemic process.
As I reach into the clear, clear sea, I’m drawn to glowing egg shaped stones that are smooth and comforting in my hand. And of course I’m not really surprised – eggs – source of creativity, new life, maternal birth, cracking open.
I remember the story of the monks who deliberately dropped the clay pots they made and then painted the cracks with gold leaf, in the belief that it’s in the cracks that our richness can be found. I turn to go.
[symple_testimonial by=” Kobayashi Issa” fade_in=”false”]
From that woman
on the beach, dusk pours out
across the evening waves