Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Wonder of Witnessing

In a modest dance studio, two preteen girls stand face to face, mirroring one another's movements in slow motion. The taller girl is leading. She circles her arms overhead, looking to the ceiling, and then bows forward at the middle, letting her head hang and arms swing at her sides. Her "mirror image," a Hispanic girl who's at least a foot shorter, keeps a watchful eye on her partner, trying her best to mimic every move in real time.

When the music started, the girls were suppressing nervous giggles. But now their faces have assumed a calm concentration. They are reflections of each other.

They see one another.
They are seen by one another.

This was just one of a handful of performance pieces I witnessed this weekend at a very informal recital of sorts at Cafe Dance in West Austin. The performers -- seven female adolescents -- were residents of The Settlement Home for Children, which provides housing, counseling, schooling and a multitude of support services for girls ages 7 to 21 who -- for one reason or another -- have no family or are no longer living with their families.

The recital was the culmination of a workshop hosted by Barbara Jo Stetzelberger, a licensed clinical social worker and dance movement therapist. For two days, Barbara Jo led the girls through a series of Interplay activities, which offer "embodied paths for self-discovery and personal healing." The recital I attended was basically a demonstration of what the girls learned in the workshop. As a group, they voted on what they wanted to perform for us -- us being about 20 community members sitting on folding chairs arranged in a semicircle. 

In Barbara Jo's Interplay workshop, there are no false or wrong moves. It is a safe, nonjudgmental environment where the young ladies are given permission to create, explore and self-express, using their voices and whole-body gestures and movement. They are invited to work alone and to work together at various points in the workshop, which creates opportunities to develop self-confidence as well as confidence in others.

I found myself holding back tears through most of the recital. The girls reminded me of how painfully alive I felt at their age, full of hormones and self-doubt, physically awkward, prone to throwing tantrums and wanting so desperately to shine, to be accepted. I watched the girls move about the floor, some with peacockish flair and some with trepidation and frequent looks toward Barbara Jo for direction. How much had they already suffered in their young lives? What have they endured? What have they been witness to?

Too much.

The rescuer in me wanted to know their stories and to "fix" all the injustices. I had to keep reminding myself that these girls are safe for now. They are surrounded by dedicated people who are working around the clock to ensure they have support and stability at the most fundamental level, as well as opportunities to learn and grow -- like this workshop with Barbara Jo.

Thank god for people like Barbara Jo, who are doing their part to bring hope and light to people who desperately need it. As I watched the recital, I couldn't help but think of the women I meet in my volunteer work at Lockhart Prison. Every semester I am witness to women mustering the courage to stand up and tell their life stories -- to remove all pretenses and defenses and speak candidly about the experiences they've had and the choices they've made over the course of their lives that eventually led them to where they are today: behind bars.

I don't have hard numbers, but it is my experience that the majority of the women in my classroom endured gross neglect and physical or sexual abuse as children. And as soon as they were old enough to discover a means of escape (alcohol; drugs; running away to the streets; inappropriate relationships with older, often abusive, men), they dove in headfirst, initiating a path of self-destruction that led them to lives of crime and ultimately prison. Along the way, many of them had babies, who then grow up in the same unspeakable chaos.

The cycle begins again.

Which brings me back to the recital and those seven girls in all their preteen glory, mustering the courage to remove all pretenses and authentically express themselves in front of an accepting, supportive audience. They didn't tell their stories, but I can take an educated guess. And it's my prayer that because of resources like The Settlement Home and people like Barbara Jo, these girls will have much different stories to tell in their latter years.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dear Expectations

Dear Expectations:

It has been duly noted that you show up in a timely fashion to all new challenges, encounters, events, conversations, and interactions of both the professional and personal kind. Despite your track record of perfect attendance, it has been determined that you do not add value to the operations within Katie Ford's HEADquarters. In fact, an internal review revealed that your worth has been on a steady decline for several years.

This is an official notice that you are no longer welcome at future engagements. If you decide to show up anyway, your presence will be acknowledged and then quickly dismissed without ceremony.