Reflections on Seva

Photo courtesy of Amy King/Off the Mat, Into the World

Though it was less than a year ago, I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t think about Haiti every day. About the people—especially the women and children—who inspire me and with whom I feel so deeply connected. I was intimidated by Haiti, too, by the level of pain that I felt maybe I couldn’t handle. Like the caring person who shields her eyes from a commercial with desperate, emaciated children or abused animals, because it’s just too much. Because you don’t want to think about it.

But I did think about it. And I realized it was well past time to step out of my comfort zone. The Global Seva Challenge. Initially I saw those looks of disbelief: $20,000? For Haiti? That’s crazy. Not going to happen. Put your energy and talent somewhere more… rewarding.

But these 9 months of effort, of endless emails and phone calls, of inevitable disappointment, of stepping off the ledge of what is familiar and easy, offered me an unexpected pathway to go deeper into myself. My voice was already pretty loud—trained as a lawyer, lobbyist, and yoga teacher, I am quite well conditioned to say what I mean, clearly and, well, loudly. But I nonetheless always had approached with trepidation the act of saying what I truly believe, of offering up myself (and not just someone else’s cause, teachings, or truth).

I learned something important about my own fear of putting myself out there, naked, for a cause like this: it just wasn’t going to fly. I couldn’t leave the talking to someone else. I couldn’t fall back on the script. It was all me. Me, and the women in Haiti to whom I was beginning to feel an inextricable link. As if their struggle—to set aside the blinding, devastating pain of loss and daily hardship, and step forward to make change for their families and their communities—could become my own.

Larkin Goff Photography

This challenge meant I had to connect with people on a deeper level than perhaps I ever had before. I had to make an unforgettable impact. And the response of my community was beyond anything I could have imagined. They took up the cause too. They showed up, they sent emails and posted to Facebook. And when I needed it most, they just came up after a yoga class and said, “Don’t worry, I know you’re going to make it.” They knew even when I didn’t.

The Seva Challenge was so much more than a fundraising project or a volunteer opportunity. In my own urban, mid-career-shift, privileged bubble, it was an opportunity to empower myself. I exercised my creativity in a way that I hadn’t in so many years. I worked with my hands—crafting jewelry to sell for the cause—and my feet—boots to the sidewalk asking for donations, making sales, and connecting with friends and strangers. I found so much more passion teaching a yoga class when I knew everyone in the room was there to support them, the people of Haiti. Not just me, not just themselves. It’s amazing how the energy shifts.

I feel so drawn now to the women I’ll be meeting in Haiti. They are the rocks of their families and their communities, particularly after the earthquake. I only hope that I could muster a fraction of the resilience, the passion and the drive these women have demonstrated in the face of innumerable hardships.

Because of incredible organizations like Fonkoze, and because of some of the funds I helped to raise, they are getting the meaningful, long-term assistance they need to step into their own power. Fonkoze is a non-profit organization, Haiti’s Alternative Bank for the Organized Poor. They provide financial services to the poorest in Haiti, especially women, tens of thousands of them, who receive literacy and business education and small loans to provide for their families and support backyard enterprises like crops and crafts. Because of Fonkoze’s programs, women who had little hope now are growing their micro-businesses, learning to read, and pulling themselves slowly out of poverty. Watch this video to meet some of the women of Fonkoze.

These women are a true inspiration to me. Maybe I’m biased, but I really believe that women are more resilient, more passionate, and more powerful than they are given credit for. It’s nothing against men. But I have watched women, myself included, rise from the dark depths of pain and loss, and transform themselves and the world around them, in their own small ways. The sad fact is that too many women around the world are denied the opportunities men have, the opportunities in my own community that women take for granted—to own property, manager their own money, start a business, or work anywhere other than in the kitchen.

There is an opportunity in Haiti, right now, for real change to emerge. Individuals, many of them women, are stepping forward, despite all of the obstacles and the easy path to hopelessness. They are passionate and strong and determined. And I believe they have the power to transform Haiti’s future.

Along my Seva journey after I had been pushing hard to promote events and seek donations through social media, an acquaintance commented, with a well-disguised mix of respect, surprise, and disbelief…. You just don’t give up, do you? Nope. I didn’t. Why would I? They don’t know me, but nonetheless I could just feel that those women in Haiti were counting on me. No one ever made history without also irking someone. Making a peaceful, joyful nuisance.

I leave for Haiti in less than three weeks. I am so honored to be a part of the Off the Mat, Into the World’s 2011 Bare Witness Tour. Seeing, experiencing, learning, documenting this moment in Haiti’s history. In my own tiny way, being part of the change. Thank you!

The joy of packing for someone else

I hate packing. Really, and I’m terrible at it too. I always end up with a huge overstuffed suitcase with few of the things I actually need when I arrive. This preparation is definitely my least favorite part of any journey…

So I’m starting to experience the usual angst about packing for my trip to Haiti in a couple of weeks. For this trip, though, I can set aside some of the agonizing over flip flops and bug spray, because I get to pack for someone else! That’s right, I’m packing a second bag full of goodies–first aid supplies, educational and art supplies and toys for the kids we’re going to meet in Haiti. It lightens the psychological load to think that this whole bag of “stuff” won’t come back home with me. And I’m so excited to gift it to children who are attending the schools we’ll be visiting or participating in art therapy programs we’re working with, as well as other kids we meet along the way in tent camps and orphanages.

My bag is getting full, but if you’d like to help me stuff it with some more new or gently used kid-friendly items, e-mail me at tohaitiwithlovedc@gmail.com.

A taste of Haiti, right here in DC

Last night, I set out to experience a bit of Haiti, right here in Washington, DC. Two events offered a timely opportunity to immerse myself in the people and culture of Haiti, with just a few weeks until I travel to Haiti myself as part of the Off the Mat, Into the World Bare Witness Tour, the culmination of the 2011 Global Seva Challenge. Great timing!

Photo by Keith Lane, courtesy of Studio Gallery, Washington, DC.

First, we checked out an amazing art exhibition at the Studio Gallery. Two American artists–photographer Keith Lane and graphic artist Jenna Crowder–have created a collaborative project of multimedia art, called Ornamental Foxes, to document their travel experiences in Haiti after the earthquake. Keith and Jenna offered an artists’ talk about how they created this art, out of a desire to connect with Haitian artists and bring back a complete picture of the good and the bad in Haiti. They immersed themselves in the culture and art of Haiti, conducted dozens of interviews, took thousands of photographs, and distilled it all into a poignant representation of the people, the landscape, and the spirit of Haiti. This exhibit will be open for a few more weeks, so check it out if you can!

Haitian artist BelO

Then, we stopped for some nourishment (unfortunately there’s no Haitian food in DC that I know about!) and headed over to Artisphere in Rosslyn, VA, for a concert by Haitian musical ambassador BelO. BelO is an energetic, talented, 32-year-old musician and activist who speaks and sings passionately about his home country. He played everything from reggae covers to traditional Caribbean beats and Haitian pop. Most of his songs were in Creole, but he made a point of translating and telling the stories of the songs for the non-Haitians (although it was clear there were quite a few Haitians in the room!). BelO’s most important message was one of hope–encouraging Haitians to stay connected to Haiti, to help find solutions to the nations’ challenges and tell the stories of positive change that is taking place despite immeasurable hardship. He covered Tracy Chapman’s song “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” with such conviction that you wouldn’t doubt he meant every word.

The string that rang through the whole evening was joy. Haiti has faced what for many nations would be insurmountable struggle. Yet Haitians–those reflected in Keith and Jenna’s artwork, BelO joyfully singing about his home, and the Haitian community dancing to the beats of their history–have so much hope, a fighting spirit. There’s no question in my mind that Haiti will recover. I am beyond inspired to document the passion of this incredible nation myself soon!

Malas for Haiti: One bead at a time

I’m not afraid to admit it—I’m drawn to pretty things. I’ve struggled with the tug of materialism since childhood. Here, have a new [whatever], you’ll feel better.

So when I went to India for this first time as part of my long-time-in-coming transition from over-educated, well-heeled young professional to over-educated, emerging-inner-hippie suburban yoga teacher, I fell in love with a set of mala beads because they brought out the color in my eyes. And because a wise man told me those were the right stones for me. And because it’s what yogis are supposed to buy in India.

But when I held the cool beads in my hand, I felt a pulsing energy, something powerful and grounding. I was drawn to them. They represented for me the start of a long path to begin to fill a spiritual void that I had been carrying for many years, the genesis of my decision to travel to India in the first place.

I have to admit, however, despite bringing home several sets of japa mala beads that I dipped in the healing waters of the river Ganges, I still have yet to settle into the daily mantra and meditation practice that I know is a vital part of my spiritual journey. But I am at peace with the fact that I will get there in my own time.

And the beads still play a very important part of my practice of yoga, reminding me that this journey must start slow—one bead at a time. Right now, I’m engrossed in the practice of being present, not getting lost in the lure of every shiny object that floats by, not getting distracted by the inner critic that likes to remind me I’m a good-for-nothing yogi because I can’t manage to meditate and chant every morning.

Mala beads took on a new meaning when I embarked on the Global Seva Challenge in collaboration with Off the Mat, Into the World, to raise funds and awareness for sustainable relief efforts in Haiti. This is another practice that for me has seriously tested my edge. I’m good at spending money and supporting other people’s causes. But I am challenged by asking for donations, by finding my voice to champion a cause I believe in. By connecting with others in a meaningful way rather than always choosing an easy yet sheltered road. And especially by not letting a big intention and a big goal—raising $20,000 for Haiti—make me feel small, doubting, and powerless.

So, I decided to make malas. . . . Because I find something so powerful about a strand of 108 little beads hanging around my neck, whether I’m meditating with them or not. It reminds me to focus only on the present repetition instead of the 107 beads that lie ahead. To not let the big goal overshadow each tiny step to get there.

Every mala that I sell, every small request that I make—asking a friend or a complete stranger to support my effort or buy a piece of jewelry—brings me one step further along on my journey. But the beads also help me remember to stay unattached to the material goal of the challenge and the dollar signs that go with it. It’s all about the journey, and it’s all about the intention: to serve, with no view towards the outcome, simply out of compassion and deep love. I am humbled by the innumerable gifts I have been given in this life and the opportunity to share them.

As I travel simultaneously on my own inner spiritual journey and outwardly as a leader in this incredible effort for Haiti that is so much bigger than myself, I am learning about yoga in a way that I might not ever experience it on my mat.

And for those who buy the malas I have lovingly made, one bead at a time, in a process that is itself much like a meditation, I hope they will find the same path to peace that I have. One bead at a time.

Making malas for Haiti

Yesterday I got together with my amazing partner in the Global Seva Challenge, Christy (www.christy4haiti.com), and the lovely Carol of Coco Yogini, to make malas. Christy and I decided that we would make handcrafted malas with a unique design that invokes Haiti and the seva challenge journey, as part of our fundraising efforts. They will be more meaningful than t-shirts or other products we could sell, especially because we’ll be making them ourselves.

You can’t buy these beauties yet, but I wanted to give you a little preview of our mala-making adventure. Christy and I both consider ourselves to be pretty crafty, and I did quite a bit of jewelry-making and metalwork when I was younger, so I was thrilled to dive right in. Carol, who sells beautiful hand-knotted crystal and pearl malas online and in local boutiques, was kind enough to donate her time for the lesson. We worked hard, but had some laughs and a lovely time chatting and knotting, knotting and chatting.

Christy fashioned a bracelet, I created a smaller mala, and Carol worked her magic on a larger mala with some custom touches. Here’s the gorgeous mala prototype that I created:

And here are Carol and Christy, hard at work on their creations:

By the way, in case you aren’t familiar with malas, they are a form of prayer beads, used in yogic and Buddhist meditation practices to count repetitions of a mantra (a word or phrase that is repeated as part of the meditation). A traditional mala contains 108 beads, symbolizing a sacred number in Hindu spirituality. Check out this web site to learn more about malas and the meaning of 108. Malas also just make beautiful jewelry!

Look for Malas for Haiti, coming soon to a web site or boutique near you!