Looking back

Commitment was my word for 2014.

In general, it was a word that served as an umbrella for multiple themes and intentions: family, health, spirituality, and movement to name the foremost categories.

What specifically I was committing myself to within each area morphed as my year did— as I did. I enjoyed having a word for my year, and having fluid guiding questions to move with me…What do I need to commit to in this season? What does commitment look like for me? Continue reading “Looking back”

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Walking toward grace

As you may have noticed, I’m back.

The answer to “back where?” is multi-tiered…

In reality, I’ve been back stateside for several months. I returned mid-March and spent the past months exploring some beautiful land and communities in our country.

A month ago, I returned to San Diego, the place I call home when I choose to name one.

And now, I return here: to this blog. Or, more significantly, to the practice of reflecting in a public space that invites others to my journey.

This final return is indicative of an arch I noticed in my travels over the past year. Within every core country, I experienced a ‘settling in’ period where my public writing paused. In these transitional times, I’d question many things while not yet being in a place to name them, often prompting further questions of my own integrity or reliability.

I am shrugging off those latter queries (read: doubts) and the urge to apologize profusely for my recent lapse. Instead, I will simply thank you for landing here when you do and acknowledge with gratitude the patience that this sometimes requires.

A part of my intention in this season is acceptance and I am working on accepting my process where it is, even when that place does not meet my ideal of, say, blogging weekly on solidarity or mysticism. I hold this aim of acceptance in tandem with growth goals that I am always walking toward. This means that I hope too to still get to that place of weekly posts. In time.

Holding the bothof acceptance and growth-momentum addresses a tension I feel in many areas of my life. Often, unrealized goals actually perpetuate worse performance from me. I need to call a friend back and in my guilt of taking so long, I delay the call further. I am working on not picking at my face (this is real), but messed up my clean record yesterday, so what’s one more relapse? I mean to blog, but dread the post that acknowledges the extent to which I have not blogged.

In writing this, I realize that at the crux of acceptance and growth is an orientation to process. When I am not fixated on a destination but instead on constant evolution, I create the space to be where I am while allowing that place to be fluid.

All of this reminds me of an important insight gleaned during teacher training. Our instructor frequently quipped, “the asana (physical practice and postures) is there to serve your body; not the other way around”. As White (2007) said, yoga is less about attaining than it is attuning– not forcing our bodies or our minds to a specific place, but cultivating an awareness that notices and listens to our bodies, our minds, and most pertinently, our inner wisdom.

The way that I understand this has implications far beyond the yoga mat. It invites me to let go of perfectionist ideals and lean into my own experience, as beautiful or as messy as that may be.

In short, my attention moves to being rather than doing. I’m brought back then, to a word that litters the faith tradition of my upbringing: grace.

When I think about grace, I hold a spacious image in my mind’s eye. I envision a meadow with tall grass and blooming wildflowers- with dry patches and weeds to be sure- but mostly, I see expansive land for grandiose dancing and a cartwheel or two, or twenty. I see scraped knees and dripping blood that accompanies the risk and rewards of living freely. I see a platform for memory making and mishap and the paradoxical adventure of learning to be human.

Today, I return to grace. And I breathe it into where I am today, and where I hope to go tomorrow.

 

References

White, G. (2007). Yoga beyond belief: insights to awaken and deepen your practice. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books.

With open hips and an open(ing) heart

YTT

I’m excited to announce that I just completed yoga teacher training with the lovely people pictured here. Prana Yoga of La Jolla proved to be a phenomenal place to learn and I am incredibly grateful for the knowledge, insight, and experience gained.

On one of our last days together, we worked on heart openers (aka back bends).

For those of you who read the term heart opener with raised eyebrows, there is an anatomical reason for talking about back bends as such. When we place emphasis on creating expansion through the chest, we tend to create a greater and higher arch in our back, taking the pressure off of our lumbar (lower) spine. People often dump into this area when they jump into a back bend; thus, the visual of a ‘heart opener’ is a movement toward a safer and healthier practice.

In our workshop, we learned this and a variety of tools to support people in protecting their spines while finding deep bends (or not so deep depending on the day, the person, and the body). After receiving all of the instructions on alignment and verbal cues to get into the postures, we spent time practicing adjustments on one another. When working on urdva dhanurasana, wheel pose, my partner placed his hand between my shoulder blades and gently lifted in and up. My reaction was immediate. Before I even processed what was happening, I exclaimed, “I don’t like that!”

Concerned that he moved my body out of alignment, he withdrew his hand quickly and asked, “did I hurt you?”

Coming out of the pose, I thought about it. “No.” I replied. “I just didn’t like it.”

Eager to learn, he pressed. “Okay… what did you feel in your body?”

I closed my eyes to consider the question. With dismay, it hit me just as suddenly as my reaction had: it opened my heart.

In asana- the physical practice of yoga- we recognize that we store memories, emotions, and experiences in our bodies. Hip openers are where this is most frequently realized, as we hold suppressed or unaddressed emotions in our pelvic area. This energy can resurface as we lean into lizard’s pose or breathe through pigeon. It is quite common for people to experience intense feelings after a class with several hip openers, or even one hip-opening posture that was particularly powerful that day.

When we do body work, there are mental and emotional processes happening which allow for breakthroughs to occur on all of these levels. We are literally able to release past trauma and emotional experiences through physical movement and alignment with our breath and life force. With three weeks of daily yoga, I am continually surfacing new insights and emotions- and my hips flexors are subsequently finding more and more flexibility.

Just as the hips invite emotions to resurface, heart openers bring vulnerability and trust.

Enter my visceral reaction to my partner’s adjustment. This moment forces me to look at the extent to which I am resistant to vulnerability. With his adjustment, I experienced the loss of my usual protection: shoulders hunched over my chest creating a cloak that veils my heart from the world’s touch.

The next day in an asana class, we were invited to hold camel pose (an intense heart and hip opener) for an extended period of time. My sympathetic nervous system went crazy as my flight response kicked in urging me to avoid such openness. Instead I took long, deep breathes. I closed my eyes. I visualized the space just behind my heart, and I crawled inside.

I found a little girl there. I told her she was beautiful. Worth loving. Strong.

You see, what prevents me from leaning into vulnerability is not only my fear of pain. It is my lack of belief in the beauty of the unfiltered me. When I see the power and divinity within, I cannot help but share her. It is when this belief dwindles and my relationship to self suffers that I close myself off to others.

It seems like no coincidence that these are my current lessons when I have not blogged for four months and my last post was an emotionally raw poem exploring relational loss. Peeling back the layers of insulation I’ve carefully woven, I returned to that heart-space after class. I reminded the little girl that she has a powerful voice that should be heard.

She smiled. The brightness in her radiated outward, luminous and warm. Body heated and chest still open, I decided to write. About open hips and open hearts… or at least the journey toward them.

Modern day mystic

My intention for 2014 is commitment. This includes a commitment to a variety of things I desire for my life, one primary area being my spiritual journey and budding identity as a mystic. As I shared this intention and growth with close friends, several wrote back inquiring, what do you mean by mysticism? Their question followed me, tapping me on the shoulder every time that I turned my back and nagging at the corners of my heart when I would sit to write.

So, I am somewhat hesitantly beginning this theme: Mystic Mondays. This is a space to explore the questions: what is mysticism?, how do we live it?, and in what ways is it needed?.

I am not writing to present answers; I do not have any. Instead, I have inner inklings and evolving visions that I hope to present, to test, and to offer with the hope of seeing what Wisdom is there to be awakened within us all.

I know that I need help with this. My dream is that this becomes a community-led conversation with guest blogs and comment sections bubbling over with further pondering, resources, and finds. To start, I will feature a series of stories of mystical moments and musing that explores the Creative Energy the Earth teems with, an energy some use the G-word to describe.

For those of you who read my blog for the social justice theme or travel stories, I believe that this conversation is inherently linked to both. We need ways to make meaning of the world that are generative, that is that provide us with the energy required to create change. We need to take up travel to our innermost places for the development that follows when we pursue Self.

From my faith tradition and experience, the Church in its current form neglects to do these things. It tells us a narrative that we are taken care of. Good to go. Say a prayer and your future is set.

I’m interested in a more participatory story. An inclusive story. One that reflects the complexity and uncertainty of the human experience.

Matthew Fox (2011) captures the themes of mystic activists with this (incomplete) list: marriage of spirit and matter, the sacredness of the earth, deep ecumenism, the omnipresence of Divinity, darkness and shadow, beauty and joy, compassion and social and ecological justice, creativity, meditation, returning to the source, stillness, contemplation or calming the reptilian brain, loss and the dark night of the soul, and sacred sexuality.

I believe that these are themes needed in our conversations and human interactions– I yearn for them to help us create a more just, Right world. With this hope, I take up the pursuit of embodying the life of a modern day mystic.

————————
Fox, M. (2011). Christian mystics: 365 readings and meditations. Novato, Calif.: New World Library.

Shadow and Light

In the past eight years, I have done seven homestays.

I did the math with my scholars yesterday.

This is not just seven places and seven dynamic experiences, but seven families.

The lengths of these varied, as did the extent of my connection to said families. But from all of this, I am still in contact with only two (although, to be fair, am currently living with a third).

I have returned to visit zero.

I mentioned in my post about language that I chose Rwanda for a diverse experience. Yet, as I reflect on these things and prepare to embark on a journey to six new countries around the world, I pause.

You see, if things go well with TBB, I can do their program for a second year. And the thought has occurred to me that, if I do, if they have an itinerary with different countries, maybe I could do that one.

This thought now reminds me of a poem I wrote while in Florida:

Five pelicans soared above me today,
I smiled at the sight.
And wished there had been seven.

I’ll take your gifts and with a sweet smile,
paint them black with dissatisfaction and greed.
And romance.

And I wonder if my thirst for new experiences, my love of travel, is not just a new form of consumerism?

While I may practice the art of simplicity by living rurally and out of a backpack, am I not merely embracing the same “more, more” attitude, but with people and places instead of material goods?

When my obsession is not brand-names, but culture, does that excuse the excess?

I must ask: at what point is my intention to immerse and connect exploitative, as I accumulate experiences without sustaining and investing in relationships?

With this, I think that if I do have the opportunity and decide to do a second year of TBB, maybe the same itinerary is just what I need. Perhaps my next trip should be to see some friends I’ve already made. Or maybe the next step I take will place me somewhere for longer than two years.

All of these questions bring me back to a dialogue I facilitated during my MA program about the privilege and implicit dominance of social justice work. A theme of our dialogue was the reality that, for those of us whose work involves travel or work with communities outside of our own, we are the ones in the position to leave. As we spoke about this tension, one brilliant faculty member said, “we don’t leave- the people, the places- they never leave us.”

In my reflection now, I am comforted by how true this is in my experience.

Seven families. And I carry each of them with me, both their faces and my learning etching themselves upon the crevices of my heart, split open with every “hello” and “goodbye.”

This does not resolve the conflict I feel, nor negate the validity of my questions above. When my travels become about accumulation and not connection, I must re-orient myself. Close my eyes. Smell the tortillas forming as the flour on my hands cracks with moisture. See the smiling faces of children chasing the car as we return from excursion. Hear the chorus of voices filling every sanctuary, the hum of oms echoing throughout the temples. Feel the caress of mothers and grandmothers and papas and aunts welcome me into their homes, their lives.

Bienvenidos. Karibu. Sadarayen piligannawa.

And I welcome the memories just as they opened wide their doors.

I remember in Mexico the cool hard bench of the church and seeing, for the first time, someone slain by the Spirit. Their life of joy and fulfillment follow me, reminding me of the Important Things.

The confusion and stress of urban living in Tanzania returns to me quickly, along with the stories from that action-filled weekend. Above all, the patients’ faces of the psychiatric ward we visited to meet a sibling remain sealed in my mind, prompting questions of dignity, healthcare, and systems.

I revisit often my futile attempts to help my family farm in the rural fields of Tanzania, remembering those hard lessons of my own culture’s shortcomings. With them, I remember the children and our worship-filled dancing.

My final family in Tanzania sticks out for their inspiration and passion. From their own experience of adoption, they began a children center which they run brilliantly. Challenging notions of local capacity, they stand strong in my mind as a testament to home-based development.

The community of Guarjilla’s strength and resiliency prods me towards hope, as El Salvador’s story burns fires in my eyes. The stratification I experienced, even as a homestay guest, continues to teach me about my own resource-guilt.

My time in Sri Lanka- though among the shortest- may be my brightest memories. From our dancing circle, to our playful games, the strength of human connection came alive to me in their jungle abode. My host sister’s tears the day we left flow from the frames in my mind to my own cheeks at the shear recollection.

I arrived home late tonight to my seventh homestay family, with this post half-written and the rest swirling in my head. After a long day of work in the city, my house was already sleeping as I slipped in the door. Slowly, my arrival stirred them and, one by one, siblings came to greet me.

Perfectly, my sister Weneza finished writing for me. Peeking her head around the door of my room, her eyes shining with the nervous excitement of trying new words out on her tongue, she proclaimed:

“I will remember you, my heart.”

The monkey and the owl

While I don’t know this from personal experience, it seems to me that the most difficult part of having children is letting go of them. By this I mean progressively giving them the space they need to develop personal autonomy (a sense of self); or, accepting that you cannot interfere in the natural development process, including when the process gets to questioning (if not rejecting) most everything you ever taught/gave. For any parents of college students who are reading this, I assure you that this is actually a healthy stage of their development.

 

And I should say that my parents handled this swimmingly (my 19 year-old self may not have said the same, as expected per the aforementioned process).

 

It is neat to now be at a place in life that sees myself as distinct from my parents (as opposed to the definition of self/values in opposition to them), while appreciating them in me as well.

 

Which brings me to this post.

 

As some of you know, I am quite infatuated with the notion of spirit animals, and I have long since self-identified as a monkey.

 

While traveling with a class last summer, I shared this fact and my professor protested, saying that I am an owl.

 

The reality is, I am both. My cohort friends tease me when they only see Owl Stacey for too long, insinuating she only belongs in the classroom. Come to think of it, they tease me when Monkey Stacey comes out as well, posturing that they must “brace themselves”.

 

In contrast to life at school, much of my interactions in Rwanda come from a place connected to Monkey Stacey. With the absence of language, abstract thought and reflection are a challenge to get across, where silly voices, ridiculous dancing, and general goofiness transcends culture and our language differences.

 

As I jaunted across the compound, making the kids laugh by shaking my hips, shrugging my shoulders, and bobbing my head to their radio music, it occurred to me how much Monkey Stacey is a mirror image of my father- particularly the Saturday morning variation from my childhood. With this discovery, I realized that Owl Stacey comes from my mother’s critical thinking skills, passion for learning, and diligent work ethic.

 

It made me laugh to think that, for a year, I discussed “the monkey and the owl” with friends but never traced their roots. And to see my parents’ touch on who I am- without my individuality feeling threatened- made me smile.

 

I love you, mom and dad.

Out of the valley

They call Rwanda the land of 1,000 hills.

I am experiencing such healing in these hills. As I walked into the valley towards my sacred space today, I looked at the rolling hills around me and said with such sincerity, “I am so glad that I am here.” And thanked them for their kindness to me.

On a 1:1 recently, a scholar was reflecting on the length of the program and said, “this is just a lot of time to be with yourself.” I agree with her on the latter point: cultural immersion invites- demands even- being with oneself.

As I greet myself, I am understanding the ways that I have been running; I am pulling the curtain back to see my voices of fear. And I am choosing to stop this race that I cannot win and pull out the stakes in the ground that are so deeply rooted I wonder if they are in fact cement.

Every book I have read ths summer has had something to teach me.

My life here is busy, and it is quiet. It can feel lonely, and it can feel crowded. From my transformational leadership coaching work, my heart sings: and it can be both at the same time.

In this paradox, I sit. And from this viewpoint, I listen to all of the things that the books are teaching me. I hear the Soul of the World whisper to me; I let the hills of Nkomangwa embrace me. I pour myself into the task of healing. For me, to be with oneself is to know oneself, which may indeed be to see the face of God.

Designing the design process

I received a call last night that a representative from Georgetown arrives tomorrow to check in on the program. I knew this was going to happen at some point this summer and that, with two Georgetown scholars in my group, he would spend some time with us. But I did not anticipate the anxiety.

Really, I have no reason to be nervous. He is not really evaluating me, but ThinkImpact (TI). And mostly, he is coming to check-in on scholars whom I know are doing well.

Nonetheless, I half hope he comes to a workshop and loves it and half hopes he does not come at all.

The scholars and I meet every morning. Using the meeting structure from the Women’s Center, we always begin with a personal check-in. We then move to logistsics, curriculum content, and a reflection question to journal and share.

I feel great about the group experience I am helping to facilitate for my scholars. Lately, I have also been really excited about where we are in the process/curriculum.

But, it is a funny thing to teach something outside of your field/experience.

Now that the scholars gathered their design teams, our workshops are in preparation for them to facilitate their own version of the activity with their teams.

To begin, I gave the scholars a variety of exercises to engage in asset mapping with the community members. Fortunately, I did a little bit of asset-based work in AmeriCorps, and read a lot about it then. In short, I felt way more prepared for that than the rest of the design process.

We start with assets very intentionally in order to estabish a foundation that says “you have the capacity.” While TI does not bring any money in for our projects, we bring a belief in the existing resources and skills in the community to create their own change (the development version of appreciative inquiry for my SOLES friends). It has been neat to see scholars embrace this philosophy, or at least consider it.

Next is an activity known as “Brainstorm a Path”- the TI equivalent to HCD’s ‘how might we’. With this, design teams begin to look at their daily experiences and how they might innovate around them.

“Innovate around experiences” is one of TI’s main principles, and I think the most difficult one to grasp. Essentially, it says that we are not creating products and services for the sake of building business, but for the purpose of improving lived experiences.

Last year, for example, one of the more successful design teams chose to innovate around the cooking experience and found that collecting firewood was a long and arduous process for families. So they innovated a charcoal product made from the existing waste (AKA asset) of their corn husks.

It is at this point that I am teaching ideas and concepts that are new to me, which is where my anxiety about our friend from Georgetown comes in. Fortunately, HCD is just that: human-centered, and I am quite familiar with the experience of being human.

It is an empathy-based approach, which is interesting for me to see in the context of the business process. And while some use it to better target the customer, in the context of social innovation, it is applied to a social issue of some sort.

I am learning a lot! I went through the d.school’s open source crash course in design and am doing a lot of research on facilitation, design thinking, and entrepreneurship (any resources you have to share are welcome!).

And with every layer I peel back, while I might come up with some clever exercises, I discover yet another set of questions around our presence and approach, as well as development as whole.

ThinkImpact Family Tree

As I delight in my Rwandan family, I feel similarly blessed by the TI staff and my scholars.

The staff is comprised of three advisors including me. The other two, Emily and Kathryn, feel like friends I have had for years. Both PeaceCorps alums in Mozambique and Belize respectively, we all have a similar aptitude for adventure and cross-cultural experiences.

We complement one another not only in our interests, but also our strengths. I learn from each of them every day how to better support our students and am not so secretly recruiting them both to the student affairs profession.

Kathryn attended a private Christian college and just completed a MA in a nonprofit leadership program. Few people understand the implications of a school like Westmont or a program like mine in SOLES, so I am wowed by our resonance within each. Emily rounds out our team, for Kathryn and I together would likely share too many blind spots. She comes from a marine science background and is well schooled in listening, providing the technical lens and quiet that would otherwise be lacking.

We are enhanced by our incredible Country Associate Edison, a Ugandan studying at Brandeis currently, and our in-country staff person, Noel, a Rwandan whose brilliance and humor never ceases to amaze me.

And how we laugh together. The five of us keep coming up with excuses to meet so we can see each other more than the expected once a week meeting. We encourage our scholars to plan tours in other’s communities and hitch a ride to one another whenever Noel will allow it. Emily and I have even walked to the borders of each of our communities to share curriculum resources (and, honestly, to hang out together).

I love them each dearly and can’t believe we have only five more weeks on staff together, or that we’ve only known one another for five.

As for my scholars, they are great. Hailing from Dartmouth, Georgetown, USC, Claremont McKenna, Colgate, and Carleton, they are a bright bunch with a wide range of disciplines, perspectives, knowledge, and experience. We have a great team dynamic and they support one another through their experiences well, making my job quite easy.

Right now, the scholars are approaching community members they met throughout immerse and are inviting them to be on their design teams. Everyone, including me, is nervous and excited to begin the heart of the design work and to see what comes of this experience.

As I miss my community back home, I am thankful to be surrounded by such wonderful people.