This is my dancing, singing, seasonally-flowering uterus. It’s also my crying, raging, mourning uterus. It holds deep, almost unbearable, ancient pain – memories still surfacing from the wounding within my lineage, and of lives beyond this one – memories of the power to create life and countless births, memories of the losses of life and of countless failed and purposely aborted births, memories of babies taken from me against my will – memories never spoken yet never fully forgotten. Who else will remember these stories? Who else will bear/ liberate this pain? Who else but me remembers the agony of my mother’s uterus during our Cesarean Birth when she was numbed and unconscious? Not my mother who chose the necessity to stay numb. I remember. My womb, my uterus remembers. My uterus re-members itself from the fractured disaporic herstory of my peoples, of our shared peoples. These are the stories I carry. Such stories, we carry. Who else will bear/ liberate this pain than us – wombmen and womb-bearing beings? Who else will unknot the centuries of oppression? Who else will bear forth the future of the human species – to renew Creation again and again through the eye of a needle? Who else will reclaim our powers of creation and death? Who else will choose to dance and sing anyway – even in the face of great ignorance – because we have the privilege and the responsibility to – entrusted to us by generations of women who could not dance or sing at all? The challenges facing us as now are not new, yet we are closer to a Shared Liberation. Let us not forget in these times of Transition, that we are but the next generation in long lines of women and beings who worked to remember and who forgot their own power, and whose powers were repressed or manipulated. We are the ones our ancestors are praying for to wake up – we, the children of lineages seeking to remember our own origins within an inconceivably vast Cosmic Womb. Let us not forget that we are connected inseparably beyond the boundaries of contrived nation-states, in a Womb-Wide Web. That the majority of countries still find it acceptable to regulate the bodies of women: abortions are illegal (or illegal except in extreme situations) in much of the world. Let us not forget that the forces of ignorance are still present, that the last vestiges of a dying order are grasping for power. Yet, let us not forget that they will inevitably lose this false power. And that the only true power is beyond “us” – the Power that created my life, your life, all Life, and that we as womb-bearers are the perennial guardians of this Power within the human species, and that no man-made decree can change this. Let us not forget that the forces of ignorance and fear live within all of us, and that without compassion, liberation is not possible. Today as I bleed, cradled by mountains older than these struggles of our human species over creation and death, I remember that all is not lost. All is not a fight against, but rather a continual Collective Birthing towards Truth. We are the Earth and the Earth will always be victorious. In the words of Starhawk: “We are the rising of the Earth. We are the shifting of the ground. We are the seeds that take root, when we bring the fortress down.”
I am learning to love, learning to say yes to love even if it hurts. It’s a lifelong learning of course, and those of us willing to learn to love fully must also be willing to experience much heartbreak and death. Its been a long hard winter and spring for me – as some of you know – and, though convinced as I was that it was the end, love eventually came back – like a boomerang. Love came back in the in the form of a human being – a man, and forced me to work at telling a more Whole Story. Not just my side, but the other’s side, and the larger archetypal stories. This play – Flowers Falling – has everything to do with women and men – specifically how hard it is for us as women to trust men, and how hard it is for two people to love each other in the context of patriarchy – of hundreds, thousands of years of conditioning – of being taught who our enemy is. I believe that the origin of all war, all domination, exploitation and separation of any kind – finds its origin in patriarchy, in the split between genders and the false hierarchy constructed between them. It often feels almost impossible to me in partnership to “meet in the middle” as a man and woman. How can two his/er-stories so long-estranged from each other once again speak a common language – find coherence, resonance, peace? How do you make love with your enemy? I originally began writing this play from the place of my own heart-broken-ness, and over the months it remained a question: what IS this all about?! In the last couple weeks, the play has taken shape, has morphed, has surprised me and my own ignorance – into becoming a kind of elegy of hope for love and peace in our world. Hope – I don’t use that word lightly I mean hope in the deepest and most profound dreams of my and our own souls – the longing for love, for peace, for remembrance, for joy. The longing to be fully human again. The longing for an end to the seemingly eternal conflicts, wars, and displacements. The longing to see in the other – whether man or woman or whoever – the beloved, and not the enemy. What began in winter with death, now blossoms in summer as a radical offering of myself. An offering that each day deepens and finds more truth in the words and gestures I’ve chosen to speak. Words and gestures which I was not even ready to bring forth on opening night. Words which must be spoken though – both for my own healing, and because there’s so much more at stake. Because if I can’t make peace in my inner world, or with my beloved, how can there be peace in our larger world – between communities, nations, women and men? “How can I expect you – America – to make peace with the world, when – just like us – all you’ve ever known since your inception was war?”
I’m reminded again of that beautiful song that sings: “I ain’t gonna study war no more.”
Instead, we study peace, we study love and compassion. But what does that mean really? After all, we don’t get to peace through more separation. We create peace by seeing the other as a wounded lover, child, being – as wounded and estranged as we ourselves are. “Love and Compassion” is radical revolution, and its not always soft. Its surely ruthless. Both in this play and in in all of life, flowers are to me the most heroic symbol of love and compassion – the union of both/and. I am learning give up my weapons, my armaments. This play teaches me everyday. This play lives inside me. In that same way, Love teaches me everyday. Love is that benevolent but ruthless force that wants to break me open into being fully human. Compassion is what allows it all to happen.
For two more nights (tonight Monday, and now Tuesday as well) I’m offering up my inner world for friends and strangers to come watch me be a fool for love, be radically vulnerable, be present with my own wounds and ignorance, and commit to my own longing. I invite you to come not only to watch, but to participate – to receive and commit to the same for yourself – for your life, for our shared world, for all the war that’s happening now and that’s been happening. Like summer strawberries, its only alive for a short time.
7pm Sheffield Covered Bridge
photo by Krysia Kurzyca
Today I want to tell the story of how and why I began making the kind of theatre I do. My story begins with Jack Kerouac, tantra and hicthhiking alone around the country, and how I went back to India for the first time as a young woman and discovered the multi-colored world of ritual performance. What I found on those travels – and what found me – would change me, and put me on the path I’ve been on ever since.
When I was 17 years old, love confused me – much as it still does today – and I found myself restless with a devoted young farmer man, and needing an escape. In high school I had read On the Road, by Kerouac, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins. I was living in Massachusetts after my freshman year at Simon’s Rock. The year was 2000. My closet friends and I imagined ourselves as the newest generation of beatnicks, and Inside my bones, secretly, I wanted to be just like Sissy Hawshank. In the summer of that year, I hitchiked around the country by myself – which was also sort-of an accident (I didn’t have enough money for a train ticket.) What I found as a 17 year-young woman – who didn’t know she was anything close to beautiful or remarkable – was a lot of stares (you can imagine) a lot of attention, from a very white blue collar America (many of whom had never come so close to an Indian woman in the flesh before). I met and made many unlikely friends, including a lot of truckers and a few hippies. Over and over, I was asked about my “Indian-ness” my ancestry (which I had all but tried to erase in the 13 years prior), with questions about “that red dot you wear on your forehead”, about tantric sex, and Hindu goddesses – questions to which I had no answer. Moreover, I ended up with dozens of stories so strange and beautiful and precious, that I felt completely unfit to tell them, unfit to do them justice. All this led me to decide that I needed to return to Kerala – to India – in order to learn how my people told stories. I needed to learn about and reclaim my roots and my language, and I needed to find ways to answer all those awkward, penetrating questions. The following year, I embarked on a 10-month quest dedicated to learning about all the ways my people told stories. Around this same time, I saw my first clown performance at college. It blew my mind and heart wide open, and I knew that there was something there I needed to know and embody: I wanted to become a clown!
Armed with an adoration for stories well told, clowns, traveling, and the mysterious and wild origins of my own ancestry, and equally loaded with ignorance, modern arrogance and a complete lack of skill in my own mother tongue, I went back to Kerala. I went back to a place whose language was impenetrable to me, nevermind it had been my first language. For months, I would hear sounds that had no meaning. I would look at the writing on the walls and on the buses, seeing an elaborately curled script that I was sure would never be known to me. I went back home to have my soul completely broken for the first time as a grown woman by the crude and hard ways development hinders the human heart. And would feel profound unbelonging in the one place I wanted more than anywhere else to belong to, while also not being willing to do what It would take to fit in. Everywhere I went, I was stared at. And rightfully so. I didn’t look like anyone else, even though my skin was brown. The world I first entered into was depressingly stale and flat – the world of my relatives. I knew there was more to Kerala – that I had come for – but how would I ever find it?! I had only one contact into the world of performance to begin with, and that ultimately served me very well because It led to one thing, which then led to opening a door into many many things and people. It took months before those doors opened however, and when they did, I ran straight through them.
In 2001, televisions and electricity were still reaching the most rural parts of Kerala. There were no cell phones. But even then, the television was fast replacing the the role storytelling and performances once served. (Why spend 21 nights watching an archaically slow re-telling of the Ramayana, when you could watch it from the comfort of your own home on the T.V. with a lot more glitz and glamor?) But back then, one could still walk through paddy fields in the pitch dark without any light to find some ancient Devi (Goddess) temple where there was an all-night long ritual. One could still find a Kavu (sacred forest grove). One could still see an ancient snake ritual in tact. One could still find real magic, there were still performers who carried a spark of something beyond our comprehension. They performed for the Goddess in earnest, not just for show. I’ve been lucky enough to see the old ritual dramatic forms of Kerala before this present time when they’ve been bankrupted by modernity, florescent lights, loudspeakers, cell phones, and alcohol.
I – who had grown up with television as practically a surrogate mother, who learned English by watching cartoons and forgot Malayalam by the same – was now exposed to nearly ever kind of ritual drama/ storytelling form we had in Kerala at the time, of which there are over a dozen major ones (and hundreds of variations within them.) I was graciously let into the homes and lives of many elders who loved the arts, and many performers whose families had been dedicated to their art-forms for uncountable generations. I want to take this moment to thank especially Venuji and all the work he has done within his lifetime to save the last vestiges of the dying arts – Kudiyattam in particular – and to his wife and my teacher Nirmalaji, and to the Tolpavakoothu artists – Ramakrishnan and Lakshmanan, and to the Mudiyettu family – Murali and all, to the Padayani troupe in Kadamanita in the homeland of my father’s people and the late Vasudevan Pillai, to Rajagopalan for showing me my first Serpumthullals, I bow to the dozens of Theyyams I watched and give thanks to Jayaraj to who helped me see many of them, and to the late Kathakali master Ramakrishnan Ashan – the last of his kind, and his wife Narayanikutty who welcomed me and helped me begin my oddesy from the start. I also want to thank the late playwright and director Kavalam Naryana Pannikar, who saw in me what I did not yet see, and who like a mischievous wizard, pushed me onto the stage to dance in my utter embarrassment. Thank you. There are yet many more to be thanked (but names are no longer remembered). All these experiences over many months, showed me like layered ancient tapestries, what was stored in my lineage, and that the way my people told stories and transmitted magic and consciousness was still in tact.
Even after this journey, I came home to the U.S. with a greater love for stories and for ritual and my roots, but I didn’t imagine I would be making theatre. I did learn, slowly, how to be a clown. And I became more immersed into the performing arts, but not deliberately. Originally, in college (and still now) I became involved in “theatre” because of the things we did before we ever got on stage. These practices of exploring the body, mind, and nature of being were as close as I had to shaman tools. Indeed they are shaman tools (if properly understood and used), and the ritual traditions of Kerala, the archetype of the clown, and my own yearnings to liberate myself, brought me into the theatre through the back door so-to-say. I never wanted to be on stage. Never intended to direct. I was a shy awkward girl, and am still an introvert. Yet, some other part of my nature – along with forces beyond me – propelled me outward into cycling journeys and spotlights.
18 years later, my major inspiration and need to make theatre still comes from my roots in Kerala, and from my own lack of rooting. (Of course I’ve also been inspired and encouraged by modern artists who have deep vision like Lecoq and Pina Bausch, the legacy of Butoh, and many others, but my taproot is still the Indian theatre). Yet because the underlying context and intention of these ancient traditions (as well as my own work) is so different from that of the modern Western theatre, I often feel like an outsider artist. The former was born slowly like crystals over hundreds and thousands of years through intricate relationships between specific communities and tribes to their places and ecologies, while the latter is born of a disparate and displaced peoples disconnected from community, from place, and most certainly from Nature. Perhaps the most important distinction - ritual theatre revolves around the sacred.
The ritual dramatic traditions of my homeland were elaborate art-sciences of life-renewal and meaning-making – ways of re-membering the human being, the community and the village. Ritual performances were “whole works of art” that simultaneously and ingeniously incorporated dance, theatre, storytelling, music, and visual art. They constantly broke “the third wall” through their immediacy and intimacy which connected not only audience and performer, but the audience itself as one teeming mass of human aliveness. The ancient theatres were the original avante-gaurde. They were always based in the context of a community and the village and were “site-specific” – happening in temples, sacred groves and near agricultural fields – and on specific lunar and astrological dates throughout the performance season. As such, these performances served as annual communal rite of passages – not for individuals – but for a whole family, a community or village. And more than most theatre of our modern and Western realities, they possessed the rare and un-replicable ingredient of Soul. But such magic and liminality didn’t just serve the purpose of “entertainment” as most modern theatre does. It was the way a family, a people, an entire bio-region, stayed knit together – and not just for themselves, but for the welfare of their shared Ecology – the Devi, mother Earth. It was the way consciousness grew over time within each individual, because the stories told had within them the Big Picture, the larger blueprint. All of this I would come to understand in time, but the seeds were planted way back then by patient ritual performers and elders who explained what they could to me until those same seeds could take root within my own mind and heart, and body. In the Indian traditions, we say that the “form” of tradition holds within it the keys to consciousness. While I’m no master at any one form and was never immersed long within a guru-shishya relationship, I nevertheless feel blessed to have received transmission in a less direct way; I imbibed magic and storytelling wherever I could like a hungry orphan who was always asking, “Are you my mother?” After all, its those who were once orphaned who know most deeply the gift of family, the gift of art, the gift of place, and the longing to belong.
So, for the past 7 years I’ve dedicated my forces to creating “new ritual theatre” dedicated to place (often outdoors and usually never on a conventional “stage”) that speaks of Nature and our sacred relationship to it, that speaks of an essential erotic-ness of life, and of the politics of human delusions, industrial culture, capitalism, war and displacement, about women and men and love and grief, loss and renewal. Ritual and theatre have been the only ways I’ve experienced real authentic community, and that’s why I’ve continued to create and offer them – its kept my soul afloat and fed. Its also taxed me a lot on all levels, but I guess that’s the way it goes. I was never taught so much. Made it up as I went along with all the blunders and foibles of a young person- fear, insecurity and exhaustion. I’ve made tons of mistakes, failed greatly, learned humility, contributed some good remembrances within my community, and succeeded - in the words of Martín Prechtel - at “making beauty out of my grief”.
Being in India again last year, the message was so clear to me, that things are ending there – the old ways, the old cultures are almost extinct. My once-wild jungle homeland is mostly covered over with concrete, even the snake groves, the Goddess groves. My people are numbed-out and lost. My heart grieves for us, even as they continue to feel nothing while the water turns blacker by the day and drought approaches massive proportions. So, here I am: holding a small heirloom seed, a spark, of that original wholesomeness, that magic – and my privilege and responsibility to my ancestors and to the future generations is to continue to nourish and cultivate that here – in this new old world – to craft new medicine and new ritual, to offer beauty and remembrance as I have been, in this strange dispossessed land of America, a place whose people have little roots and no ritual, their Soul substituted wholesale for stuff you can buy at the Dollar Store.
Often these days, I also wonder whether there’s any point to creating theatre/ sacred art/ ritual, without a village to honor it. Is it true that perhaps much of my work goes to ears and eyes who can’t hear or see it fully, can’t comprehend, can’t necessarily even feel because it may be too intimate, too real, and too threatening? Because the story I’m telling requires of them to sacrifice artificiality and the false safety of “first-world” numbness. And in the West, the world of theatre, just like the world of “art” in general, (aside from renegade theatres like Bread and Puppet and the like) is one that’s celebrated and reified the more its disconnected from Nature, place and community. The more packaged and glossy, the better its considered to be. The work I create doesn’t fit into the construct of the Western theatre – it doesn’t come from the same aesthetic and affect of disconnection or of the “whiteness” that sells, it can’t necessarily be contained within a building, and is not necessarily reliant on technology or the hyper-post-modern deconstruction of everything. And after all, I am not white. In the end it is that very brownness and “Indian-ness” which sets me apart form America, and which sets America apart from me. While all of this can feel lonely, its also a blessing. It’s a blessing to known one’s roots, to be proud of them, and to come from a place and a people who revered a well told story – through the language of the body and voice. In the end, the theatre I make adores love, and stories and the simplicity of human being in relationship to place.
So for now I continue making the art I do, driven like a woman with her hair on fire, to save my own sanity in this lost world, and for my own healing, and also for the memory of my ancestors, as an ambassador of heirloom seeds that may soon no longer be so viable back home. My path has surprised me, and looking back the entire story makes so much sense- is so perfectly choreographed, to make me into who I am.
Ever since I was a very little girl in Kerala, I’ve been searching for moss. Looking in the cracks in the sidewalk where they paved over the jungle that was our home before home was a concrete box. These fragments of Nature would continue to keep me alive through the plastic-coated, sugar-induced nightmare of suburban American life until I was about 17, when I would enter my first real forest in the Berkshires. (It would also be the first time I would encounter a patch of moss bigger than 2x2”.) I knew then, as I know now, that I belong where the moss grows on rocks. But its still the cracks in the sidewalk – whether in NYC or Delhi – bravely bursting with a fledgling banyan tree or other devout “weed”, that’ve taught me the resiliency of Nature amidst of all the chaos and destruction we humans have set our effort too. Nature as reflection of my own and our own perennial natures – that which can’t be destroyed, no matter how overwhelming the assault against its wildness.
More than anything else, its these weeds that’ve taught me Faith at times when I almost lost it completely – wrecked in the despair of the reeking, black, plastic-choked waters of my homeland where once there had been alive, green and flowing water. Now waters of death sit everywhere, while the water people drink comes from plastic bottles. Like so much of the world, its the same everywhere. But my whole life has been spent in search of these cracks into an untamable wisdom, and of my own lineage – which despite the thousands of years of Christianity, Brahmanism, war-culture, and the more recent British colonialism, capitalism and Marxism – can still be found, although less and less readily.
This assault against our senses – our natural sensibility – is everywhere humans are. It’s the daily message we get from T.V., magazines, billboards and social media – that what’s pre-packaged, exotic, expensive and sleek is more satisfying than what’s raw, immediate, free and natural. Picture the pristine forested mountains of some far-away place in a travel magazine… we’re told that this is this place where we’ll finally feel wonder, ease, joy… if go there on vacation. When we return from these exalted other worlds to our normal lives, we’re convinced its back to a tame life. (Ironically these romanticized distant places suffer from the same assault against wildness that’s everywhere else. Just on the other side of those forested hills are desertified ones, or the ever-growing urban sprawl of development/ “advancement”.) Tragically, what’s beautiful and wild is always somewhere else in the imagination of the modern, civilized human being.
Its exactly this that separates us from the wildness inherent everywhere, everyplace – taking the wild out of Nature, and the wild out of us. Instead of going far away to search for something pristine and natural – a continuation of the colonial mindset – its here (wherever we are) that we need to look for and en-courage the wild. If we don’t, then we lose the wild here, and we loose it far away from us as well. Because the destruction of the wild everyplace (especially far away from those with more privilege) is the requisite cost of maintaining the tame modern lifestyles we have. Your comfort here equals black water back in my homeland.
What’s at stake within the wild around us – evidenced as the moss that grows invincibly through the sidewalk cracks, or the dandelions on your lawn – isn’t just Nature, its our own soul. Its our original memory of why we’re here – what it means to be human beings that are a part of this planet as opposed to apart from it. Soul is that quality of inherent beauty, intelligence, at-homeness, naturalness and uniqueness. We’ve got to look for that wildness, become really dedicated to appreciating it in the most unlikely places – to become lovers of the wild, devotees of the wild, wherever we are. And its this same quality we’ll also be stalking within ourselves and with others. We’ll be looking for people whose souls haven’t been manipulated into conformity, noticing how they’re twisted in the most beautiful way like the banyan trees that grow out of the sidewalk cracks. Because its not the idealizing of a “Pristine Nature” while we continue to live tame, commodified and sedentary lives that’s going help us survive as a human people, its our dedication to adoring and nurturing the wild within us and outside of us, so that it can do what’s its been doing for millions of years, and come back in full force. Take over more of our concrete and turn it back into the jungle it once was. Take over the colonized, mono-culture, mass-produced sameness of our minds, with its verdant, ever-evolving resilience.
Imagine a culture, a world, where we revere what’s wild instead of what’s tame. And where what’s wild isn’t just in Nature, but is also inside us and among us. So that moss might once again carpet this Earth. And so that we could remember that we belong to this Place, (and not the other way around), and that what’s alive, and free and right here, is infinitely more satisfying than anything else could ever be. Those green and sentient rebels growing out of concrete the world over – let them be our heroes, our anthem of resistance, and of hope.
I want to honor today all the women and feminine beings who don’t have children of their own, or who want to, or who are caregivers to other children not born by them, as well as to all those who in one way or another mother others. I offer these flowers to you sistren. Mother’s Day is not easy for many of us. And the sight of other people’s babies and families on social media can be triggering for those of us who don’t have children, or cannot have children. I offer these flowers again for all of you for whom this day is not easy. May it be soft with you today, with us.
Over the four years that I was a step-mother, (yet unacknowledged as such) I never received a single handmade card or flower. I struggled with that role, being as young as I was then, and also with what it meant to let two beings so deeply into my soul. Even now, (although I have no contact with them) I think of them all the time. I think of those 3 and 6 year-old boys when I first met them – the smell of their little boy heads, the messes they made, nighttime readings, walks in the woods, making food for them – learning slowly how to be a woman who could nurture little people. How shockingly different – and often hard, boringly grown-up, frustrating, and baffling – it was to be in a parent role as opposed to the ever-fun, eccentric, older friend or aunty who visits. They were not my kids, and yet they were my family. And it wasn’t until then that I could have any real compassion or empathy for the failures and struggles of my own mother.
So today I also want to claim my own motherhood – that I have been a mother, am a mother, and will yet be a mother. I offer these flowers today to myself and to my own journey of mothering. Of having learned to fail as a parent of two children, and still wanting to learn. Of mothering my actors and ritual participants over these last 7 years – like a mama hen (who sometimes unwittingly tramples her many chicks!) Of wanting to be a mother some day for my own little one. I’ve struggled so much over whether I could ever be a mother to another – whether I could have what it takes to make that kind of eternal sacrifice – to be always living “with your heart running around outside of your chest.” But I want that – perhaps more than anything else – to be part of and to bear witness to what I feel is the coolest thing I could ever do as a wombman.
Although we can never feel fully “ready” for what lessons motherhood brings, many of us who have not yet had children of our own are cultivating ourselves to be fertile ground for a small person to take root in, doing the work of healing our inheritance. I honor these fellow wombmen of my generation who are consciously choosing to ripen a readiness for mothering that our foremothers could never even have considered. I honor that’s its not an easy path for us. We are cleansing the lineage lines, we are saying no to patriarchy, no to our own self-doubt – so that our children won’t have to do this work, so that our children could be free and know that they are loved. Some of us are also waiting for a good man or partner to show up to create that child with (and wondering if they ever will). Some of us – for whatever reasons – had wanted to mother children and never were able to, and still bear that grief. I pray that we all find ways to gift our mothering with others who need it and can receive it. Some of us don’t know whether we would be good mothers, and are still healing from our own mothers’ lack of mothering. So many of us are just learning how to mother ourselves. And still others of us are not mothers’ to children (sometimes by choice), but instead create and offer forth so much beauty, wisdom and compassion to our world. To all these wombmen, I offer you these flowers. Each of us was once a seed – carried like a dream, like a prayer, in the womb of our grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmothers’ womb…may we be fertile ground for the beautiful creations this world needs, and for the seeds that might one day sprout into the free-spirited children who will belong once again to the Earth, just as these flowers do.
I hope one day to have a little being that calls me her mother, “amma”. I pray for all those who want to be mothers to others, to have the opportunity to do that in a good way, in a supported way, in a fruitful way. The world needs more good mothers, more good fathers, good parents, happy healthy children. Just like these flowers – all of Life is always trying to re-birth itself. I offer these flowers then, to all the wombs of all the wombmen who have been fertile ground for a being to take root in, and for all who – in some way or another – allow others to feel loved, seen and safe. May we take rest in our own inner mothering and that of the Mother Consciousness that holds all beings in its unconditional embrace.
I grew up fighting my Dad most of my life, from the age of 6. I grew up a fighter – hardcore, never backing down – trying to protect both myself and my mother from my father’s broken rage. Disarmament didn’t feel like an option. Being an otherwise soft-spoken person throughout my life, I fought mainly with the men who were closest to me. And just as it was with my Dad – it always felt like a fight for my life. I used to tell my intimate partners: “Don’t fight me because you’ll never win. Don’t fight me because I’ll never stop fighting you.” It was true. And until recently, I still believed I’d always be a fighter, and that there’d always be someone to fight. But in these last couple months, it became unarguably clear to me that the fight outside and the fight inside are linked, and that there can be no peace outside if I’m still at war on the inside. Not that the fighter has died- the fighter in me is still alive and well convinced there's definitely something to defend.
I’ve had to face just how much I’ve been at war with my own self, at a perpetual war inside myself – just like our world that’s always at war with itself. My heart has been both a punching bag and a boxing glove. Inside me, there is both the oppressor and the oppressed. I don’t mean this in an abstract, metaphorical way, but in a very real, even physical way. The entire left side of my body, (what I think of as my feminine side) is clenched in protection. I’m aware of this clenching, just as I’m aware that half the world, (if not more) lives a clenched life. The right side is tight too. Underneath most hearts there is fear… a fear of being oppressed, from the memory of once having been so. To “disarm” oneself is not a simple thing. Unwinding this pain, this grief – can take a long time, and I don’t think we can force trust or surrender, on any side.
Several years ago now, I became aware of an angry male voice inside my head. It sounded like the voice of my father combined with the voice of some belligerent guy from a Hollywood movie –telling me how stupid I was, or how stupid other people were. I’ve come to think of him as the quintessential voice of Patriarchy, inside me. This same voice had been in me all along, all through my life – telling me I was stupid, and I had been believing it. And its only been recently that I’ve been able to stand up to it and say: “No. that’s not true! I am not stupid!” Even though its been profoundly difficult, its helped me see just how much I’d internalized this voice since my childhood. When I was in India last year, it came up a lot and through me – as irritation with people in general, as angst about the way things were. And at a deeper level, I realized that this voice was really heartbroken and felt powerless about all the chaos around him, and the only expression it knew was aggression. Over the course of those many grueling months, I came to know my inner oppressor through an intimacy that no longer allowed me to judge the despicable in another person the same way I had. What’s “out there” is also “in here” inside me. Hatred, jealousy, revenge, aversion, restlessness, all of that – what we label as “negative emotions”. Coming back to America – a land with Trump as its mascot – felt fitting. In India, we had our own equivalent in Modi. It’s a shadow we can’t seem to escape – the archetypal “bad guy”, the big villain… who’s up to no good just because. But, the voice of the Patriarchy inside me – and inside all of us – is so hostile and aggressive precisely because he’s never felt truly at home anywhere. Just like my Dad. I try to say to him now, this angry voice when it tries to yell at me: “I see you.”
The rage that runs through my father’s line and into me, carries with it the untold stories of centuries of grief and war. Long before the British, and before even Christianity, my homeland had been divided and claimed by a medieval war-culture – a history that my people have both romanticized and hidden. Ultimately, war is still war, no matter its elegance. A few years ago, I encountered my own old-school inner warrior: an ancient Kalari warrior from Kerala, heavy with his metal, thick set and broody. He’s been in my life – also since I was a child – to protect me from harm; perhaps he’s been with me much longer than that. But the warrior in me is tired. He wants to put his weapons down and just walk into a field somewhere and lie down on the grass. Just like him, I’ve been “up in arms” most of my life, always on the alert. And I don’t want to be a fighter anymore.
The healing of all this – this fighting, this aggression, this constant defense and offense – is up to me, within me. Only I can liberate this for myself. “Please don’t fight me, because I won’t entertain a fight anymore.” I ain’t gonna study war no more… Because I’m exhausted. And because the world needs ahimsa, non-harming. The world needs peace. And peace begins inside of me. I’m putting my weapons down – in a world that’s full of pre-emptive war, guns, violence on all sides. I’m disarming in a world where its not safe to.
Our collective culture so often thinks of “the fight” as something heroic. We laud that all heroes have to fight their inner demons. “Fight the good fight” they say. I really don’t know that there is a good fight. In American history, there’s the myth of the “good war”. World War II for example they say, was a good war, a just war. I don’t believe there’s ever been a good or just war. I think, if we have to fight, its already a bad situation. MartÍn Prechtel writes about how humanity is in so much confusion because we’ve had so many wars for so long, and we’ve never grieved them. The grief and anger just build generation upon generation, making America a nation of warriors endlessly avenging their ancestors’ grief.
I don’t believe anger is a “bad” emotion. I believe anger both necessary and sacred, and that it can be used as a tool and catalyst for positive change if channeled well. I also believe that there are times when we do have to push back, and I stand in solidarity with all those noble guerrilla warriors in our world who have to defend their families against aggressors – like the pink-saried Gulabi Gang in Bihar for example – women who took up sticks against their own drunken husbands after being beaten by them for years. There is a place for the most radical kind direct action, so that the rest of us can protest without weapons. Sometimes rebellion means you have to fight. But I also believe that whenever we can stand in presence without fighting back, its preferable. So, then how do we create peace? How do i lay my weapons down?
So often, one side wants peace, but the other side may not be ready for peace. Or perhaps both sides “want peace” but the way forward isn’t clear. Because after all, how do you trust that peace is even possible? Can you ever trust it, or is it just that you become brave? Einstein, who was a proponent of full disarmament after he saw what harm his brilliance had enabled (the making of the world’s first atom bomb) said that the only way to have peace between nations is if one is willing to believe – willing to trust – fully that the other also wants peace. If on the other hand, one is holding onto any doubt that the other doesn’t want peace, then it becomes impossible to have true peace! Being willing to trust is a very brave thing. And to be honest, its not a skill I possess, having been taught through experience to never trust “the enemy”.
This is acutely evidenced in my most intimate relationships inside which I have to ask myself: How can I have peace if there is fear of being hurt, violated, betrayed again…on both sides? How do I encourage trust within myself and let go of fear? Surrendering some amount of fear seems foundational for being able to disarm oneself. And by the same token, wanting peace must be reflected in action, not just in sentiment. If you’re telling me: “I want peace not war,” but you’re stepping on my toe the whole time, then its not in fact true that you want peace. If we want peace, then we also need to acknowledge and step back from behaviors that cause harm, and make reparations for them. To repair what’s been broken requires we admit that its been broken in the first place – not by accident – but through our own actions and ignorance. Sometimes in walking toward shared peace, we face seemingly insurmountable blocks and hazards. Yet peace isn’t just something that’s on the other side like a reward; its the quality that permeates the entire journey. We need to choose peace at the start, not at the end if it works in our favor. We need to choose peace now, no matter the outcome.
There’s been a lot of debate lately over restricting gun access, but I don’t ever think the conversation goes far enough. Yes, by all means – let’s not guns have in schools, and let’s do the practical legislation – but let’s please not stop there. Let’s call for a moratorium not only on guns, but on all weapons, and on war itself. Its not the weapons ultimately that are to blame so much as the culture of endemic violence that we all live within, a culture of Patriarchy and domination – one that will ensure there will always be weapons to avenge its fear. I don’t care if you say I’m not being “realistic”, because an armed world is also not realistic for our survival as a human species. This means we have to question the fundamental narrative of armament, of war, of fighting. Why is owning a gun equated with freedom? Why does a citizenry need weapons to protect itself from the State, and why does a State get to have weapons to control its citizenry? Why is a stockpile of nuclear arsenal a prerequisite to safety or to “peace”? Can peace ever come through war? I can only call for total disarmament, just like Einstein and the original makers of the atom bomb came to do. I believe that only the total disarmament of all peoples, of all countries, will bring peace. But peace starts with us. It starts with the biggest arms dealer in the world: America. It starts with you. And with me. Inside. It starts with how we treat each other. With how we treat our selves.
We can’t fight our inner oppressor. Its not that we get beat up by him either. Its that we choose a third way. This means I can’t fight the oppressor outside anymore either – whether that’s Patriarchy or gun culture, or the neo-liberal machine – just like I can’t fight the men I’ve loved hoping to convince him of my truth. We can’t force anyone to give up their guns anymore than we can force a peace. So I’m choosing that third way. This third way I call “Ruthless Compassion”, and its got its own tools – a barrage of eloquence (well-channeled anger), the poetry of grief, the unrelenting fierceness of mothers who’ve lost their children, flowers – to name a few. Its to be both audible and disarmed in a culture – in a nation, in a world – that’s deeply fissured and armed to the hilt. Its to stand up to the face of all those Americans who want their guns in order to uphold their second amendment rights, and to the entire military industrial complex of billions of annual dollars of armament, to stand up to this and every other government who arms not only its military but also all the counter-militaries, by saying simply in a way that entertains no argument: “I see you. We’ve had Enough. The Earth and its people demand Peace.” Its also being willing to “point the finger” inside at our own unhealed wounds, grief and rage and commit to their healing. Ruthless Compassion means we stand for justice without our weapons – for our own brokenness, and for all those who’ve died fighting in the endless wars, for all the men, women and children who’ve been killed, maimed or displaced through them or through violence, for all the infinitude of broken hearts, and for all the scarred places of our Earth pockmarked with the shrapnel of our heroic indulgence.
People still think of the hippies of the 60’s as being naïve, but they were really onto the truth back then. When that young man stood there placing a flower in the loaded rifle of that soldier – I wonder if he felt brave or if he felt trusting? Either way, he knew what he was risking, and what he was saying:
“I offer you this flower – dear soldier, my old arch enemy– in hopes you will take it and put down your weapon. I offer you this flower – my inner warrior – that you might quiet your endless yelling and fighting. I offer you this flower – all the tanks and nuclear arsenals in America, in Vietnam, Russia, India, Israel, around the world – because the world so deeply needs peace, not more war.”
Probably the most defining experience of my life was that I grew up in India from the age of 9 months to 4½ years without my parents. I was raised by my mother’s family in Kerala, while my parents lived in the crowded basement of my father’s sister’s house in the Long Island suburbs with 3 other young sibling couples from India. Being “left” has been both a curse and blessing. Its been the place I’ve returned to over and over again – the place of my greatest wounding, reminder of a brokenness, the bandaid that I and life together have ripped off repeatedly, ultimately so that a splinter could be removed. Those splinters are very persistent; beliefs of who we are and why we are. This is the first time I’ve ever written about it.
Like many Indians of my generation, I was left with my maternal grandparents for the early years of my childhood. Traditionally in India, children were often watched by their grandparents. But as more parents seized opportunities to find jobs in cities or immigrate to other countries, they left young children with relatives for longer periods. We – the kids who were left behind – were the accepted casualties of such “progress”. My early life in India was productive albeit traumatizing, in so far as I learned how to curse expertly in Malayalam by yelling insults over the tall concrete wall that separated our small house from the school for delinquent boys. I grieve for the hardness and aloneness of that tough little girl and the grown woman. I grieve for my lack of mothering, of fathering. And I grieve because later, a steady intake of McDonald’s “happy meals” were often the closet I got to “happy” as a little adorable, oblivious immigrant kid in the suburbs of America. When, as a non-english speaking little 5-year old, I was dropped off at Kindergarten by my parents in the mornings, I would ask them in Malayalam, “Will you come pick me up today like you picked me up the other day? Promise me you will.”
What being left had meant is that several things were always in question, several assumptions on Maslow’s basic needs hierarchy were never givens. What’s wrong with me that they left me? Why am I not good enough? (This is true for a lot of us even if we had our parents around. And, the fact is having your parents around doesn’t necessarily make life much better, as I would eventually come to know.) Yet that part that wants to bank on survival is also always at odds with the part that’s angry at being left, and the part that’s in grief about the abandonment. Underlying all has been the belief that I will surely get left again, because love is equated with abandonment. Every subsequent relationship and heartbreak then, brings forth these same questions – the splinter gets agitated. I often felt like I was branded by a scarlet letter “A” for abandonment. Can they all tell I’m damaged goods that was left behind?
I’ve spent my entire life making whole this rupture in my soul. I’m 35 years old now. I’ve had to work at it from several angles, and I believe all those angles are each important, valid, sacred, and that one is not a substitute for the other. There is the work of coming to feel the Ground of the earth as that Mother presence who never left me, who never will leave, as well as the sense of a cosmic Father who always loved me as well, and who truly wants the best for me. There is the work of coming to know myself as essentially good enough, as loved, as loveable, and as one who doesn’t deserve to be abandoned by another, for something or someone else. There is the work of grieving, which is actually woven into every other work as well. This grief – the anguish of being left – opens the doorway to all the other grief in our world, all that’s ever been grieved or still needs to be grieved. It cracks all the way down into the bone, into the heart, into the One Shared Heart. My experience of having been left is a fragment of all who’ve been left, all who’ve had to leave, all who feel homeless and alone in this world – past and present. My abandonment is what’s allowed me to feel at home in this world, when finally, as an adult, I began to see that so few of us are really at home here at all – most are just very good at pretending. Most of all, it’s what’s allowed me the gift and burden of feeling: deeply, profoundly.
I love Rumi’s line, “Pain bears like cure like a child.” Only the child can know the pain of being left at a young age. Even though it was a gentler way of being left than so much of what happens in our world, to the child it’s still excruciating. The terror of not having your mother’s breast there, her voice, your father’s hands. Of not being able to walk, or talk. Only cry. And cry and cry you did until by and by, they found ways to distract you, and you found ways to keep yourself busy. But that sadness never went away. It became a sort of familiar plaster in my soul where that rupture happened. Sadness became my signature. Its easy to become addicted to the wound. Until I could begin to see, and then admit: “I am not only that.” My little girl wound holds the medicine I need, and the medicine I have to offer the world. Good medicine, bitter medicine – that let’s me taste the sweetness of life.
The other work then, is that of re-telling. I am a storyteller. The work of any real storyteller is to tell a story in the most whole way possible. That means we don’t leave out the details. Its coming to see that the story that is, possesses its own eloquence. I “got” only recently, that those opportunities my parents wanted for me could only honestly have come about this way, (even though to their chagrin, I haven’t become a doctor, lawyer or engineer!) Who I am now is the product of growing up in India as a toddler speaking one language fluently, and then being an uprooted immigrant in the U.S. learning English, which is now my primary language. Who I am is because I’ve never belonged to any one place or people. If I’d hadn't grown up on a mono-diet of Coca Cola, sugar and television, I wouldn’t now be this woman who works to dismantle notions of “first-world progress” that are still devouring her “third-world” homeland. I wouldn’t have become the woman who hitchhiked around America alone, or bicycled through villages in Kerala, or who creates site specific performances. I wouldn’t have been the woman who had to go back to India again and again in order to learn how to tell stories, and how to carry the seeds her ancestors saved – to keep them alive and bring them from destruction in her home country – here to this not all-together friendly and foreign place.
None of who I’ve become would’ve been possible if not for the sacrifice my parents made in leaving me. I think of my breast-feeding mother, heavy and swollen with milk as she boarded that plane for the first time to a country that would treat her like any other immigrant – stupid, substandard, at best exoticized – she, having held her daughter for the last time in several years. I think of my father, his somber, unsmiling face hiding the ungrieved grief of his childhood, the tender boy who was beaten up by his own parents daily, who would grow up to be a man too sensitive for this world, who – like most everyone else – had to learn how to numb himself from an early age. Such leaving is a kind of sacrifice you live out slowly through the estrangement from your only child – in wondering nights if you did the right thing, knowing that you did the only thing that made sense to do – waiting for that day you would bring her back to you as months turned into years, only to have her eventually hate you for the very sacrifice you made so she could become who she was meant to be. Only a parent can know what it is to have to leave a child.
Just weeks ago, I had the immediate and visceral realization for the first time in my adult life, that my parents wouldn’t be here forever. That they might actually die sooner than I imagine. That all my years of resenting, hating and separating myself from their own pain-inflicting wounds would be nullified, and I would truly and finally be “alone.” When our parents leave this earth, that is the ultimate in feeling “left.” They just won’t be here anymore. That night, I cried knowing I hadn’t told my parents how much I actually loved them, how much I was grateful to them, that I knew how much I must worry them just by being who I am. I saw that my parents had once been young people and that now they were old and at the close of their own life cycles. I didn’t want them to die yet. No not yet! I searched frantically then for this photograph that I couldn’t find, of the three of us in India. It’s a photo that I always imagined was taken the day they left. Later, when I showed it to them, my mother couldn’t remember; she said she hadn’t worn that sari on the plane. I imagine her on the plane again, her milk-laden breasts then nursing the rows of carefully wrapped colored glass bangles that perched precariously on her lap throughout the whole trip, my father beside her anxious and expectant making miscellaneous reports about everything in and outside the plane; their serious young faces – as they are in this photograph – trying to not let on about the loss they knew was inevitable, as they were propelled hundreds of miles an hour into a future that was unknowable.
When my mother finally came to get me in Kerala, she looked like a dazzling Hollywood celebrity with her American clothes and sunglasses. Apparently I had excitedly told her sister, “my mom – my amma – is coming to get me, and she is sooo pretty!” I remember my own trip over on the plane – how she saved a biscuit for me while I was asleep, and how much that meant to me. Meeting my father however, was more tragic, and would lay the foundation for long, difficult relationships with men throughout my life. (Even that I see as part of the bigger story – one that includes generations before me.) After all this time, I can acknowledge that for me, for us, there were no accidents. Just the shaping of lives by forces beyond our control, our comprehension – making us who we are, how we are, why we are: beautiful, misshapen, poetically storied people.
These are times are when things fall apart. Will fall apart. Must fall apart. You know it, just as I do if you’re reading this. You must be feeling it.
One thing we can be sure of is that the old structures we were taught were reliable in the past few thousand years- those based in Empire, in Patriarchy- are and will be, falling around us. At the same time, so much of what’s truly good – what’s ancient and indigenous in us - has also been eroding fast against the hard tide of modernity and progress. My journey back to India last year was evidence of a decimation that will not be abated…held unforgettably in the memories of black waters, of plastic choked streams and marshes, of the literal and metaphoric “refuse” of human civilization at large, exposed everywhere for the eyes to see, and for the willing heart to feel.
Yet, perhaps what’s most imperiled, even as species continue to dwindle and our own indigenous cultures disappear, is the integrity of the human heart itself. Its the ability to feel, to empathize- to care enough to surrender one’s own ego of separateness. The entirety of the structure we live in- call it Empire, call it the Patriarchy, call it Capitalism, call it White Supremacy, (its all one thing) - hinges on the isolation of each from the Whole. Its this isolation that numbs and eventually chokes the heart- our ability to feel, and therefore to identify with more than the individual “me”. And besides accepted cults of nationalism, national and religious holidays, and cheap thrills of “entertainment”, there is so little real connecting most of us. We don’t live lives of commons, or of ritual, or of collective remembering. Instead we live systematically isolated lives where each human life is fit into a contrived capsule from whose obliqueness only technology and social media promises to save us.
Meanwhile, as larger things fall apart, our smaller individual lives do as well. Each person I speak with is undergoing in some way, a massive shift in their lives- deaths of various kinds. And despite whatever forms of community many of us have managed to create for ourselves, it can still feel incredibly lonely. Still, my loss is not only my own, and my grief if anchored in a larger grief, becomes a healing force. Our collective heartbreaks need to be grieved as well, they need to be held, mourned and honored collectively. Otherwise, as West African Dagara shaman Malidoma Some teaches - they remain as traumas to cope with, just as our own personal struggles often do.
This is where, for hundreds or thousands of years before almost all of us became a colonized people displaced from a place and people and soul, we had ritual. Ritual serves to mend together that which has been torn apart through human ignorance and arrogance. It is a collective remembrance and offering from the small heart to the larger Heart.
All this falling apart- this death, decay, and suffering- can also serve to point our awareness to what matters, to what’s most precious in life on planet earth. If we’re willing to feel our deepest pain, we also begin to feel both awe and responsibility to serve and protect all that’s beautiful and sacred in Life, in our own daily life, and in our world. The other commonality we share as human beings besides grief and pain, is an innate ability to be part of life, to re-join life and to remember ourselves as part of a greater Whole. And from this place where the political and personal are recognized as one, we can begin to take other “actions”. These will no longer be partial, scizzored actions for isolated causes, but whole- systems, multi-layered approaches that weave healing justice and ecology with radical ways of reorienting our values to respect and serve Nature and the human heart.
The one thing we can no longer afford is to numb out. As Martín Pretchel so eloquently describes, the only thing that will effectively change the course of humanity to one of healing and health, is the genuine willingness of more and more human beings to truly feel their own personal grief and that of the collective. Its this tender, dedicated process of unwinding our grief that allows us to appreciate the real beauty and unprocessed sweetness of life. Many of us who have lost a loved one in some way and have gone through the tunnel of loss, have also experienced the sudden crispness and luminosity that dawns when we re-enter life. That same aliveness is always present; we just aren’t so tuned to it because we’re too busy being busy and coping with our underlying fears, anxieties, sadness, and trying to be “somebody”. I don’t believe all this numbing out is our “fault” because we’ve inherited it- for generations upon generations- and we’ve been taught all through that its dangerous and unproductive to feel too much. So most of us end up hooked- whether that’s to cigarettes, sugar, alcohol, pot, TV, sex, or a smart phone- few among us aren’t addicted to some distraction that eases the bite of our aloneness.
And yet, we have a choice. Every human being has this same essential choice: to remember, to feel - to literally rebel against the numbing structures of our oppression - by truly waking up. And its so much more supportive, more beautiful, more vital- when we can also wake up together, as our long-ago forgotten ancestors knew so well. Change and healing can begin with something as simple as looking into another’s eyes - that of a friend or stranger – witnessing and being witnessed that they share the same broken-and-yearning-for-healing-and-glorious-beauty Heart as you do. Being in a group where many are doing this with each other at the same time, creates a larger, fertile field for tapping into true connection, compassion and remembering. Without this willingness to feel, to look and to honor, our resistance/ our revolution will not be soul-full. And the true re-orienting of our humanity needs to be fueled and nurtured by shared soul, vulnerability and depth.
This Friday the 20th of April at 7pm, I’ll be offering a community ritual of remembering of our Shared Heart.Using the breath and sound, we’ll honor grief, compassion, and the ability to hold both the dissolution of the old and the tender budding of the new. To know that life is both hard and still very beautiful, and to claim that beauty as though our lives depended on it (because it does).
artist, performer and writer devoted to storytelling, the earth, ritual, whole works of art, remembering the village, and co-creating