On Tuesday morning, May 26, 2020, I woke with my usual pandemic routine. Roll over, stop the alarm on my phone, open email to get a sense of what will be on my to do list today and delete ads, then open social media to get a pulse on the rest of my world via friends and family. I didn’t scroll far before reading posts by clergy and activist friends expressing horror about the latest story of police brutality. As my attention focused on following news update, I remember having a bodily sensation of persistent emptying in the center of my torso. Kind of like a malfunctioning toilet. Each new detail made the sensation louder: The location in Minneapolis was a place I drove by often to meet my spiritual director. The still picture from the video. Despair for black and brown bodies set in and I was at a loss.
O Creator, your world cries out to
It hurts everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.
O Creator, our hearts cry out to you.
God in your mercy, receive our prayer.
-Kerry Meyer, text based on Warsan Shire’s poem “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”
This block of text and others are songs that have accompanied my journey
and serve as companions in prayer, encouragement, and invocation.
To hear this song, scroll down to “Hearts Cry Out” at https://www.mothersylvia.com/songs.html.
I didn’t realize my despair was so debilitating until I connected with my pastor colleague shortly thereafter for a routine call to review our worship plans for next Sunday. The pain and suffering of the world so loud, so near, I couldn’t give my attention to the lectionary. It felt so disconnected. I could only cry and try to breathe while giving my colleague enough information to let them know I wasn’t reacting to the news of a racialized incident recorded in New York City’s Central Park that broke the previous day, but something much more devastating and closer. We agreed to reconnect later in the day.
Tubwayhun lawile d’hinnon netbayun
Healed are those who weep for their frustrated desire;
they will see the face of fulfillment in a new form.
-retranslation of the 2nd Beatitude by Neil Douglas-Klotz
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A month ago, a friend posted the “... those who weep for their frustrated desire ...” quote and I realized I had sat and sang it with my Sufi Ruhaniant friends awhile back. It was time to sing it again. And I’ve been singing it and sharing it a lot in the last few weeks. Friends, weep. Let that surge of want and longing flood your present moment. It doesn’t have to be every moment. And it doesn’t have to be every day. But letting yourself go with the flow from time to time, feeling all the big feels, and seeing the nuances will help you move through it. Us move through it. Sometimes we need to follow the path of least resistance. This is the wisdom of water. Weep now. What comes will come. And I trust we will have the strength and courage to do what’s next when the time is right. Much love, Conie
When we reconnected, my colleague joined me in grief and we started to consider a response. By Thursday evening, we had organized a virtual Interfaith Vigil and Call to Action with local and national black faith leaders speaking, and offerings of music and prayers from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions. Our goal was to move us from grief, lament, and anger to purpose, sending us out to listen and stand in solidarity with black and brown bodies of color. It felt meaningful and useful.
Was it the right thing to do? Should it be done by us?
These questions arose during our planning and we continued to sit with them during and after. How do non-black bodies respond to the pain and suffering of unjust systems around them, especially when it is close to you? How does one listen? How does one decide to act? How does one support a marginalized community without being an additional burden to them? How does one facilitate the process of awareness, grief, pain, and shock for the dominant group of folks? And then call and mobilize them to action?
As a mid-40’s non-black person of color who grew up in white rural Minnesota within liturgical traditions, this is a complicated question. Maybe this is a complicated question for you too?
The rest of this article reflects on my journey with uncovering the relationship white-bodied supremacy has on my body and brain, what has been useful in deconstructing and embodying a new dream (spoiler alert: song and movement play an important part!), and an invitation to do likewise. Thank you for continuing to read and considering this personal way of transforming the long embedded and silent mindset of white-bodies being the norm by which all other bodies are to be measured.
Spirit of Peace, to your cause we
give our strength
that love may reign and wars may cease.
Peace. Peace on Earth.
- text: Rev. Otto Zing & Neil Douglas-Klotz
This song is part of the Dances of Universal Peace canon.
This song traveled to Russia with a delegation of practitioners during the Cold War.
My conscious attention to the issue of white-bodied superiority and race injustice has only been of recent note for the last 5-ish years. What has supported this has been the intuitive tending of my vocal and embodied freedom which started slowly in college 20+ years ago and has been growing in leaps and bounds over the last decade. These practices have grounded me in a fuller knowing of my intrinsic value and worth. With this grounding and an understanding that racism has more dimensions to it than being a personal flaw (Read a brief overview on the four dimensions of racism here), I could explore the various roots and relationships of how racism has been internalized in me without overwhelming personal guilt.
a wheel that is turning,
calling me into my power.
There’s a wheel that is turning,
calling me into my voice!
– Lisa G. Littlebird
Listen and learn all the parts here. Part 1 of 3.
The 2017 book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, by Minneapolis trauma therapist and author Resmaa Menakem, has been immensely supportive for me in untying the bindings of racism around me. In this book, Menakem describes how events hundreds of years ago in faraway lands and events during this lifetime can influence anyone whose family and people settled or were enslaved on this continent. Through Resmaa I learned how being born in the first year my Korean mother lived in the U.S. has instilled me with a deep caution of new social situations. How my Germanic ancestors left a crowded Europe to follow cheap land (thanks railroads and broken treaties). How the descendants of these ancestors later dropped German culture to assimilate during WWII. How that environment set another stage for me decades later to enter Kindergarten with two languages on my tongue and leave with one.
In My Grandmother’s Hands, Resmaa lays out how traumatizing situations for the individual and the collective are absorbed and stored in the body until they are metabolized to be released and healed. When left unmetabolized, these pains continue to reappear in new situations, hurting more people and spreading like a pandemic of pained souls. He reviews how this has affected the black body over the last 400 years, has been in the white European body from 1000+ years, and how police work traumatizes officers today.
In addition to how our bodies are traumatized in direct and vicarious ways, Resmaa also speaks to the ways our bodies can heal and recover after traumatizing situations. Reading and practicing the body and breath exercises in his book, I noticed a familiar philosophy of body attention that was similar to the Feldenkrais Method (Learn more here) classes I took which helped me recognize the tension I carried in my arms, neck, and shoulders while playing the piano. Practicing the vocal exercises, I noticed overlaps with my classic vocal training and non-traditional coaching in the Full Voice Method, (Learn more about the Five Elements Method here. Conie is a certified Full Voice Coach™.) highlighting the relationship between my breath and my fears in being judged for not meeting another person’s standards. Naming these anxieties while practicing these guided body and breath practices have increased space in my nervous system. This space allows fear to be felt and more thoughtful responses to come forward.
Resmaa also expands on healing for the individual to mending the collective: How vocalizing and dancing together recalibrates our communal sense of safety and trust. These practices over the long term has the potential to shift culture in big positive ways. Here I understand my experiences in collective expression through the Dances of Universal Peace and Interplay (Interplay is “an active, creative way to unlock the wisdom of the body.” Learn more at https://www.interplay.org/.) have a restorative effect and their communal power is transformative.
turning. We’re learning
to standing inside our hearts.
It’s turning. We’re learning
to stand in love.
– Lisa G. Littlebird
Listen and learn all the parts here. Part 2 of 3.
Menakem was recently interviewed by the On Being podcast. The host Krista Tippett makes this revelation, “In the 60’s … I felt like we changed the laws, but we didn’t change ourselves.” When I heard that, a flash of recognition moved through me. “That’s it! That’s what we need to do,” I thought.
As musicians in church communities, I believe we have a unique role and opportunity to hold and foster these acts of resilience and healing through sound and movement. What do you think? Would you join me in reading My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies with a small group of folks? I have found it to be not only a somatic workbook for connecting to one’s body; it is a gateway to connecting with your ancestors and healing our collective trauma.
I will not be silent.
- Lisa G. Littlebird
Listen and learn all the parts here. Part 3 of 3.
My church just hung a “Be the Church” banner outside our building. When I first encountered this banner several years ago, I was enamored with its brave proclamation. Today, the phrase “Reject Racism” sits awkwardly with me. Though I’m sure its original intent was to encourage us to change our racist society, it reads as “reject that racism exists” to me now and enables a mindset of if I’m good, I’m not (an overt) racist. I find this phrase problematic. We must redefine racism away from an individual personal flaw (Read a brief overview on the four dimensions of racism here) toward a pervasive systemic mindset where none of us can escape its influence. I believe this collective entangling in an invisible net will allow us to be more compassion with each other, more courageous in approaching each other with loving clarity to name pains and seek repair.
In these small individual acts of seeking healing for deep pain, it is my conviction that we can alchemize the toxic culture of today and transform into a society where there is truly “liberty and justice for all.” Would you join me?
We are building up a new world;
Builders must be strong.
- Rev. Dr. Vincent J. Harding
text to be sung to “Jacob’s Ladder”