As I looked around at the tables cloaked in white linens draping the floor while listening to the final speaker of the YA National Conference in NYC, 2013, I thought, “What is underneath the façade of this conference?” For a moment I saw a typical conference with participants doing what they were supposed to be doing: attentively watching the speaker with the conference’s end looming in sight. “What’s underneath this?” I thought to myself, sensing so much more underneath the surface of this traditional setting.
A few days earlier, upon entering the beautiful Roosevelt Hotel Thursday morning, with a group of fellow artists from Buffalo, NY, I was struck by the chandelier up ahead in the foyer of the hotel. We were in for a real treat, though I had no idea what the weekend would hold.
Walking up the plush carpeted stairs we approached the main foyer and there I was drawn to a large bouquet of cherry blossom branches and soft, creamy, rose colored lilies sprawling out from a large round vase on a marble table. “Were these real?” I asked myself. Taking a closer look, a few of the lilies were opened and I could see the round shaped buds of countless others awaiting their release to the warm air surrounding them. The soft, new leaves on the cherry blossom branches were shiny and silky in their newness, almost a little fragile, like a baby, having just popped up through the surface of the firm branches. I touched one of the flowers and knew these were, in fact, real.
That first day blew me away. Ayanna Hudson, Arts Education Director for National Endowment of the Arts, spoke of her dream to change the face of arts in education in this country and so eloquently and potently expressed that it is together that we can create great change. Ben Cameron, Program Director for the Arts, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, spoke energetically, thank God, because I was about to offer a moment of stretching and conscious breathing to bring life back into the bodies and minds of the participants who had been patiently and politely sitting for over an hour already. His insights and laser beam knowledge was infused with spirit and integrity. He tossed out the names of books he’s read and gained great insight from as most people quickly scribbled down the names wanting to know what he knew. He spoke about inclusion. “Yes,” I thought to myself, as I opened up the mission statement document on my computer. “My mission is inclusion.” As I thought about that briefly, something about inclusion seemed unclear, so I let that idea marinate and I continued to listen to his speech. Inspired by a comment a man shared about “flocking”, I shared my ideas of what leadership looks like. I felt comfortable, heard and seen in that room full of new people, like I was surrounded by my tribe.
As the day went on, the Director of YAWNY, Cynnie Gaasch, told me that I would be doing an interview for the YA National website. This prospect both excited and surprised me. Later that afternoon during the interview, as I spoke about my experience with YAWNY, I seemed to be getting closer and closer to something. The interview was nearly complete when I began to share more gratitude for YAWNY and all they have supported me with and through. “I don’t even know they are thinking about me and they will call and say, ‘We were just talking about you. We think you’d be perfect for this performance, class, group, etc.’ They are always championing my work and acknowledging me. It is easy to be me with YAWNY. They accept me for exactly who I am.” The interviewer and I were both struck by this statement. Suddenly I realized that was not something I experienced frequently in my life: people just loving and accepting me for who I am without question. Is this what inclusion feels like? What a gift and a treat that YAWNY has offered me this felt sense and real life experience of inclusion, appreciation, respect, love and honor time and time again. As the weekend went on, this awakening opened up and deepened, sharing more of its vibrancies and intricacies with me.
Driving up to Connecticut the next morning, I spoke with a dear Soul Brother of mine from Cuba. He and his wife are in Norway for three months and it had been nearly a year and a half since we last spoke. That seemed to open up the doorways for the beauty and love I was about to experience in Connecticut. Upon arriving to the beautiful, sunny campus of Stamford, I walked into the conference room and took a seat at the front table with Blessing Offor and a lovely, young woman who greeted me with a smile. As the panel discussions began, I became increasingly aware of a theme of inclusion, which became a deeper theme of connection throughout the day.
We, as teaching artists and others working in the field of arts and abilities open the doors for those on the fringes to come back into the fold. We create space and opportunity for those who have lost they way and bring them back to their path. We love ourselves so fully that we accept and work with those who are not able to accept or love themselves fully. We are the light bringers, we are the torch bearers, we guide people into themselves so we can all be fully self expressed in this life time and know our inherent goodness, worth and value. This is what YAWNY has been doing for me time and time again over the past 4 ½ years.
Then Blessing Offor spoke his sweet words, played the most beautiful piano and sang the most heart felt songs, both originals and a rendition of “It’s a Wonderful World”. I was touched and wanted to move and dance to his original love song, “Roots”, about growing roots together in a loving relationship. My heart was cracked open, life was pouring in showing me who I was on a deeper level, confirming everything I was doing. “I asked her to come check out an art class and she said no, but she came anyways,” one of the panel speakers expressed about a mental health client of his. “She actually did really well in the class and is now an artist and is seen and known as an artist. People are seeking her out as an artist. She said to me, the reason why she didn’t want to go to the class is because her high school art teacher told her she wasn’t very good.” Ugh, it is so often we believe “the lie” as a friend of mine put it once. The lie that we are not perfect, that we are not good enough, that we need to be something else, something better, something different than ourselves! The lie that often holds us back, keeps us less expressed, and can create all kinds of disease in our selves, in our relationships and in our lives.
It was becoming so clear to me. We welcome them in, we welcome ourselves in, all of us, these parts that are on the fringes, we open our arms and say “Come on it. There is room for you here.” Like a good shepherd gathers his fold, so do we, guide those strays, the parts of ourselves and others, back to the path and bring them into oneness again with all that is.
I have found my tribe.
As I rode home on the bus later that afternoon, I was deeply touched by the synchronicities that abounded that day. The three Sarah Ha’s in the room, the blessings that Blessing Offored and a lunchtime conversation that evolved the sentiment of inclusion into the more fully fleshed out feeling of connection.
The night was free, and I went out on my own to take a dance class from a colleague and friend of mine from Paris. The space felt good and gave me much needed time to decompress and process from everything that had evolved over the past day and half. Finishing off the night was a connecting conversation with the sweet Soul Sista, Goddess Mother I was rooming with and a good nights rest for the final day.
Leaving can tend to feel uncomfortable and difficult at times. I found myself feeling sad and triggered throughout the morning and put my self-management tools to work big time! How to leave gracefully with good feelings? This is SURELY an art form all in itself. I gathered myself, I meditated, I cleared and spoke with my Goddess Mother roommate. I took the workshops. I listened to my inner self speak. I trusted when the time was right to write, to write it all out. And as I sat there, on the mezzanine level looking out over the grand foyer with the gold painted moldings and maroon and gold woven rugs, the chandelier hanging elegantly above and the “Palm Room” in the back ground, where lunch was being laid out below, I was struck by the magic and meaning that pervaded each part of this great weekend at the YA National Conference 2013.
Much like those beautiful lilies and cherry blossoms below in the grand foyer, most of which were still tight in their buds upon my arrival Thursday, I too entered this space excited and unsure of what to expect from this weekend. And to my great surprise, just as the warmth and magic of this grand foyer supported the flowers opening and blossoming, so was this conference for me the magic and ingredients I needed to open up, to continually speak and share and bloom and blossom in connection with others for all the world to see.