(This is a true story. I have changed the names of the women out of respect for them and the confidential nature of the program we were enrolled in)
It was the second weekend intensive of the School of Womanly Arts. The morning session focused on ‘Swamping’; an activity that uses music and authentic movement to aid in the cathartic releasing of difficult emotional content i.e, rage and grief. Swamping is heavy, dark work; draining but ultimately paves the way for clarity and healing.
When it was time to break for lunch, we were instructed to find a pod of women to eat with. Feeling tired and raw, I wanted to be alone. Our instructor asked us to raise our hand if we were thinking about slinking off alone. Damn. Busted. Within a moment of raising my hand, one of the SWA team members put her hands on my shoulders and turned me around to face the three women I would go to lunch with. We were all a bit blown out from the session, but we smiled wearily at one another and began deciding where to go for lunch.
We exchanged introductions while making our way out of the crowded Ziegfeld Ballroom into the grey, rainy New York City afternoon. Two of the women were Afro-American; a mother and daughter pair from Boston, Rachel and Candace. The other was Chloe, a young Jewish woman from Brooklyn.
I found myself walking next to Rachel. We seemed to be around the same age. I admired the way she carried herself; like a beautiful, regal queen. I asked her some questions about herself and learned that she is a single mom of two girls, a vegan and a High School Principal. I shared that I worked with kids, too. She appeared somewhat interested but she didn't meet my eyes
The drizzle intensified. I thought about my raincoat hanging on a hook in my airbnb room 10 blocks away. I was dressed in black, heavy garments for the Swamping and I was getting wet. Everything felt cumbersome and uncomfortable. Grim.
Finally, we found a place to eat; a cafeteria style health food joint that specializes in sandwiches and wraps. After getting our food and shedding our damp outer layers we sat down to eat. Our workbooks had a lunchtime assignment with prompts for discussion about our personal experiences with Mastery thus far.
We talked for a while about rage and grief. Chloe shared that she struggled daily with rage. We listened and related. I felt moved to ask my lunch mates if they had listened to the Milagros Phillips lesson on Race and Sisterhood. Oddly, all three had not yet had the time to listen. Candace, very much a ray of sunshine in the pervading grey theme of the day, asked me what is was about.
I started to talk about the call and the blindsiding impact the lesson had on me. As I talked, my brain started to flash yellow lights of caution. Perhaps, Reader, you’re familiar with those blinking orbs of warning? You know, the ones that tell you to not rock the boat because to do so could cause conflict. My temples started throbbing. I felt a little sick because I knew that I was about to speak my truth and things could very well get even more uncomfortable. I couldn’t help it. I had no strength left to cut myself off. I had been holding it in for half a century.
Staring down at my half-eaten wrap, I told them everything. I talked about my family and my childhood and my personal struggle with race and identity. The whole time my mouth was talking my brain was saying ‘ Oh, you’ve done it now. You've got a lot of nerve. How dare you insult these women with your claims of feeling the same ancestral pain they do!'
I stopped talking; tears streaming down my face. I looked up at Rachel. She was looking at me intensely but said nothing. I wanted to sink into the earth. Chloe broke the silence saying that we needed to start heading back to the ballroom for the afternoon session. We all stood up and began gathering our things in silence. The sound of the chairs scraping the floor went through me like a saw blade.
Rachel walked ahead as we exited the restaurant. I felt terrible, certain I had insulted her. I felt tears welling up again. Just then, Candace came up beside me. With lilting grace, she told me she had many friends in college who struggled with not being ‘black enough’ or ‘white enough’ for whatever elusive standard that dictated such things. I turned to look at her face and saw compassion, intelligence, understanding, curiosity and even love shining back from her eyes. She said she thought my story was important. I was overwhelmed with gratitude.
By the time we arrived back at the ballroom, the sun was breaking through. We joined the line of women waiting to get back in. Candace gave me a warm, long hug. Then turning to Rachel she said, with a brilliant smile that I’ll never forget, “Well Mom, I’ll leave you now. I’m going to sit with some new women this afternoon” and off she went. Chloe had joined another small group of women as well.
I looked at Rachel and she at looked me. I said, “That’s quite an extraordinary young woman you’ve raised.”
“Thank you, “ She said. And then, “Would you like to sit together for the next session?”
Tears again. “I would love to”
And when the lessons got intense again that afternoon, she took my hand.