I have a confession to make. I have spent most of my life not speaking up because I was afraid.
What about you? Have you ever silenced yourself, or shied away from the tough conversations because of fear? Fear of failing? Fear of being seen less than perfect, or being seen at all? Fear of getting kicked out of the tribe if they do not agree with your message, leaving you alone in the wilderness with the saber tooth tigers?
Toddlers throw tantrums when unexpressed and I’m sure we’ve all thrown a few in our adult lives.
So why do we do this? Why do we hold back our truth when we are in desperate need of our real, vulnerable, courageous presence?
For myself, I thought I wasn’t worthy. I never had all the facts. Not aggressive enough. Too feminine.
I thought my ideas and deeper stirrings lived “out there,” on a different planet not called earth. I didn’t know how to translate my gutteral movement into mouth sounds. So I shunned words. I marked them as irrelevant. I preferred speaking in stories, archetypes and symbols. I thought words were too small to capture big mystery, and so I talked to trees instead of people.
This is a worthwhile lifestyle if you are a monk on a mountain praying for the world, but it doesn’t work well for people in the trenches. Words are the communication tool to connect, educate and inspire.
I remember as a new Yoga teacher stumbling around for words to share my deepest self. At the time, I was living at an AIDS hospice and my world revolved around death. Earlier that day, I had washed a dead body. For me, this was a routine occurrence, kind of like washing dishes. Needless to say, my death monologue highly offended the lunch ladies trying to find respite during their half pigeon pose.
I can look back, laugh, and love that girl for her ambition, but at the time it was quite frustrating.
In that same year, the owner of the Yoga studio gave me feedback on my teaching. I argued, “I feel like you are always judging me and it shuts me down.” Her response to my rebuttal,
“Everyone is always judging you.”
The profundity of this statement blew my mind and handed me a key to freedom of speech.
We are always judging each other. It is a survival mechanism. Is that a snake or a rope? We have to decipher. People’s judgement is none of our business, and if we concern ourselves with the drama it has the danger of stifle our creative flow.
Why are we so afraid of losing the “tribes” approval at the demise of our own well being and self expression?
I may have been afraid to speak up and out, but I was fearless in following my heart, even when the culture, my parents, and status quo said “wrong way.” I followed the beat of my internal rhythm. I left safe tribes, because I trusted something more substantial would catch me.
Blind leaps of faith, took me to the favelas of Brazil, streets of Denver, finally settling into a progressive seminary for a Masters of Divinity.
It was there I met the late Vincent Harding.
Vincent Harding was an activist and civil rights leader. He authored several books and wrote speeches for Martin Luther King. He didn’t speak loud or much but his presence preached lifetimes of wisdom. The first class I took with him was called “Religion and Human Transformation,” and the last was “Visions of a New Society.”
He would start each meeting with a song played from a cassette tape that you could hear sliding into the old school radio. He shared songs of freedom, Sweet Honey in the Rock. He would close his eyes and hum as Ella Baker sang, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
He fought on the front lines and made the weapon of love look so goddamn formidable and simple. He spoke like a prophet. I hung on his every word.
I remember reading one of his books and questioning his usage of the word “man” for “woman”.
He said simply, without any ego shattering, “things change, people change, things I couldn’t see before eventually got brought to light and it’s no big deal, we adapt.”
I understood this so deeply. We are only able to see from our narrow experience of the world, but through the questions, the collective and adaptability, we have the power to see more.
So how does this connect to tribe?
When we understand our world is not limited to a small tribe, we feel liberated to take risks, because we know the diverse chaos will catch us. It’s trustworthy. Our primal brain thinks, “snake”, and wildly we laugh, because we no longer need to fear snakes. We know how to tame them.
Vincent Harding didn’t equate his inability to fully understand a woman’s perspective as a personal failure, but more a constantly evolving process of discovery.
He told stories of courageous love, people in the trenches of the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t romantic. He emphasized the grind, the sleepless nights, blood, sweat and tears of people who were sick of being slaves. Ordinary people who dreamed of a different order.
He said the motivation to keep marching, was derived by, raising voices together, “We shall overcome. We shall overcome someday. Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.”
There was a creative fire bigger than any individual and it could not be contained.
Vincent Harding’s teaching was the reason, I left my Masters of Divinity program. The war in Iraq was about to begin and he encouraged us to take action.
What were my gifts? Not protesting, not politics, but I knew how to be with people.
And so I jumped. Into Joseph’s House, an AIDS hospice for homeless men and women in Washington DC.
I wanted to be with people on the fringes. To listen to their stories, soak up the wisdom of this liminal space, life, death, and all the messy stuff in between. Curiosity drove me to continue expanding my bubble of what I knew to be true.
At the end of one year, I was to return and finish my Masters of Divinity. I had a full scholarship and my dad would be arriving in a few days, to help me drive stuff from DC back to CO.
A warm, summer, stoop night changed my trajectory. I sat with residents of Joseph’s House that were now my friends, smoking Newport menthols, shooting the shit, laughing, watching people pass by.
I told them I wasn’t ready to leave. They said matter of factly, “Don’t. Ask if you can move in.”
What?! That sounded like crazy talk. There was not a paradigm for this. What would that look like? How would it play out?
I did not have any answers, but in that moment my intuition said “Fuck Yes.”
Reason argued, “Your dad is coming in a few days. The plans have already been set. You have a full scholarship. This would be absurd and irresponsible.”
The director of Joseph’s House walked up an hour later. I told her I didn’t want to leave. She said, “Then don’t. Stay. Move in.” and I said another “Fuck Yes.”
That decision, changed the course of my life and I stayed in the trenches with homeless men and women dying of AIDS and cancer for the next 11 years.
Do we take these leaps because we are trying to change the world? I think our deepest human nature understands the individual and collective are not separate. As Ghandi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
I bring this full circle through fighting and writing.
I was tricked into Martial Arts by something called Budokon. I went to a Budokon training weekend, expecting to do yoga and move around like an animal. Instead there were two full days of punches in the face and rear naked chokes. I loved every minute of it.
From that day forward I sought out Martial Arts with the same vigor I did everything with.
I wanted to fight because it viscerally terrified me. It took me out of my comfort zone. My internal tribe of safety.
I also loved to train. It made me feel alive and free.
The root cause of terror was a fear of exposure, of failing on a public platform. Of being marked inadequate in front of the tribe.
With shaky legs, I stepped in. Held by the support of coaches and training partners that saw my fear, but told me I was stronger. They were my “freedom songs” of the civil rights movement. They looked me in the eye and said, “You’ve got this. Everything is going to be okay.”
While I was training for my first MMA fight, I tore my ACL.
I was devastated. Fighting was my passion and the activity I spent all my free time doing.
I had a choice in this moment. I could wish things were different and wait a year until I could train again. Or I could rewrite the story.
I chose the latter and my new fight became the aggressive pursuit of healing both externally and internally. I learned to walk again, slowly, with a forced patience that was a secret blessing.
I did not understand why this happened or if anything positive could ever come out of it, but I trusted life, got quiet, and asked the questions.
Who do I say I am now? Who do you say you are?
I have always been inspired by the Rilke poem, “ Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…..Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
A few weeks ago, I had an “AHA” moment.
I had been guest teaching at a Yoga training. It was one of those “out of body” teaching experiences, when you know you are a conduit for something much greater than yourself. I was in a complete flow state and finally found the words to connect my depth to the everyday world.
Afterwards, I jumped on my bike, pedaling as fast as I could to lead another Yoga Teacher Training. I didn’t want to miss a moment.
In route, I had to bike up one of the steepest hills in DC. A hill I used to sprint up when training for fights. About halfway up, I wanted to stop and walk my bike.
Instead, I coached myself, “Angela, you are a fighter. You will not give up. You will get to the top of that hill without quitting.” I barely made it and when I did, I threw my head back and laughed. “I’m not a fighter. I’m a writer.”
For the first time since I tore my ACL, I saw glimpses of answers.
The inability to train for fights, left lots of free time and space to write. To practice finding my voice through the written word. Just like stepping into a ring, becoming, naked, and exposed to public scrutiny and judgement.
It is a choice I am making because I think vulnerability is a powerful weapon.
Sure, showing our soft underbellies could get us killed in the wild.
But, I’m a Wild Woman, acquainted with death, who holds hands with fear and cackles at the moon.
Can we learn to create art with broken hearts so they stay open to love?
Can we keep taking that small scary step forward until our strides get longer, voices get more clear and freedom is no longer a word to be mentioned. They just look in our eyes and know.
As humans, we thrive in intentional community, but our need for close minded tribes, is archaic.
The prophets, who see a new order, will most likely always be banned from the tribe and maybe that’s okay.
If we wander around lost for awhile, alone, the wilderness will whisper our nature. We are deeply connected. Your pain is my pain. My joy is your joy. I do not need to make you wrong so I can be right, because you bleed the same color as I do. Our lives depend on each other.
We are the authors of our own stories, what adventures and magic do we want to imagine? The world is waiting to be painted with our brilliance, even if some will not understand the colors we choose, it’s still so goddamn worth it to create.