Sharon Gubbay Helfer
What a Year!
What is this butterfly/flower, its wing/petals frail, heading resolutely ... where? And those seeds on its back, in its belly, what blossomings do they encode? Will they fall on fertile ground? When?
Actually, this is a morning glory, part of a big painting, 4' x 5', still in progress as the year turns.
My mother loved morning glories. Some weeks after she died in 2005, the morning glory plant I had rescued from her balcony suddenly blossomed, putting out three flowers, one each for my two sisters and me. Ever since, I've felt a quasi-mystical connection with these beautiful flowers.
There is another delicate trace embedded in this painting. It is a copy on onion skin of a letter I received from a then new friend, Catherine. I must have been about 18 years old, over 50 years ago.
Catherine was beautiful, from France; she invited me and I went to visit her, bicycling across corn fields in the sun. We sat somewhere and she taught me to sing "Aux marches du palais", an old French folk song recorded here by Marie Laforêt in 1967, just about when Catherine and I met ...
I remember very seriously reflecting on my friendship with Catherine. A real friendship, I thought, must not always expect the loveliness and comfort of agreement; it must also include the discernment and honesty to know, and to say, when we disagree. Over the years before time and distance finally separated us, I am not sure I ever found anything to disagree with Catherine about ...
The poetry of Catherine's last paragraph in this letter touches something in me, something that lives in me still ... the trust, the delicacy, the connection so fragile yet so strong, expressed in language of the heart. Catherine writes (click the text for English):
Demain mes amis m'auront oubliée, mais toujours resteront les images douces comme des rêves familiers et peut être, nos cœurs, ces hauts navires à musique, sauront-ils ne plus s’impatienter.
Big Picture - 1
I don't know how I will develop and finish this painting, that has been sitting unfinished for a number of months, first in San Antonio and now here in Detroit. Will the delicate traces, Catherine's letter and my mother's morning glory, endure? And those colors, that were the colors of the dress I sewed for myself to wear to my high school graduation age 15, what will become of them? Don't know, can't say.
However it ends up, this painting expresses one dimension of what the year 2020 has been about for me, one theme of this blog post, and that is a dance between past and present, between delicacy / gentleness and anger, protest! It encompasses the dimension of dreams, and all that is present outside of consciousness ... including pathways to some kind of new language, one that doesn't pass through the wringer of consciousness, so subject to censorship.
Big Picture - 2
Another big picture expressing my experience of 2020 is the mind map below. This is my attempt to articulate and name some key elements and themes important to me over 2020 and some of the ways they are interrelated. This mind map is part of my ongoing search for coherence, a fierce quest for voice: what song is being sung here?
For those who wish to read on, I can promise you quite a wild ride; maybe you guessed that by looking at the mind map.
2020 was an unprecedented year for me, and for everyone. I had the good fortune to have been spared personal tragedy but this was nonetheless a year for uncovering depths of anger, pain and injustice, inside and out. Life being nothing if not paradoxical, it was also a year filled with beauty and joy.
Heart of fire, dark matter, spirals ...
Alongside the Delicate Traces, there is a cauldron at the center of this painting, a fire burning. Also, bits of black, dark matter. What will be revealed: From the cauldron? From the dark matter? Don't know yet, we shall see ...
The big spiral-gestures emerged unbidden sometime in the last six months. Before that, the two elements that would reliably break out when I took up pencil or paintbrush were hands, and faces. Both hands and faces seeming to be an "acte de presence" a mute eruption into gesture ... perhaps like the hands stencilled thousands and even tens of thousands of years ago, by our ancestors. This one from the Cueva de los Manos in Argentina.
Click through the slider below to see a few of the hands and faces that emerged, always quickly, compulsively, over the past year, ending with a crossover image that includes both hand and spiral.
Ways of knowing, ways of being
2020 was remarkable for me in the number of different ways of knowing and being I experienced. Each one important. Thanks to analytical/critical modes, through studies and reading, my understanding of how things are and how they work has been reshaped in 2020. This has also been a year in which visceral, nonverbal knowings have been present and important, seeping in around and behind everything, including from news and world events. I have also communed with trees, and with ancestors, and have been really surprised by the clairvoyance of a friend. And dance, and painting and drawing have continued in my life as ways of being and knowing I cannot do without.
Visceral knowing, how deeply skewed are our foundations
There is a visceral knowing that is still seeping into me, of something so wrong; George Floyd, the cruelty of his murder, sensing that an entire reconfiguration of my inner world will be needed before this knowing can have its place.
And 2020 was the year in which I discovered Joj Harjo, her face, her poetry, the truth of her being, the Trail of Tears. Her Eagle poem was a liberation, her book Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings a revelation. Her photo here shows a deep and deeply nuanced presence. Defiance in the stance but also openness, an awareness that has seen and felt and known so much. And: not giving an inch.
George Floyd, so much in his look, and seeing it mirrored in his little girl. You do have to be Black to know anything about my world, and who are you?
Not only the abuses highlighted by Floyd and Harjo. I am ever more aware, including in my own life and biography, of so many forms of oppression, of denigration; abuse of women and of the feminine and of any who are seen to be vulnerable, or to be "different". We need to recognize and dissolve the"view from nowhere", a view that assumes "different" means different from me; assuming that I am, that people like me, are the norm.
Visceral Knowing 2: "My tree", elephants
In San Antonio's beautiful San Pedro Springs Park I had a favorite tree where I would go to sit.
I am sitting in "my tree" with my eyes closed. I feel the powerful presence of the live oak trunk I am sitting on. Below, I sense the branchings of strong roots and then the more delicate connections, the forests of capillaries, the web of life beneath me. And I feel the morning air soft on my skin, I am hearing city noises, the clang of construction, deep hoot of a train whistle and also birds, harsh grackles nearby and haunting geese flying over.
One morning, following instructions, I sit in my tree and travel down into the Earth in search of an animal, that should be waiting for me. I inquire, first of a snake, then of a tiger: Are you the one waiting for me? No. I continue on down and encounter an elephant. Yes.
Not surprising maybe; the tree roots reaching beneath me look like an elephant's trunk and there is something elephant-like in the massiveness of the tree branches behind me.
But there is more. Elephant appears to be a vortex, an energetic spiral of meaning in my inner world, with strong associations both to my father and to my mother. As well, not knowing any of this, my clairvoyant friend Anna had looked into me in August of 2019 and found ... an elephant! Her comment was"This elephant feels very celebrated and has a sacred gentle vibe". To show me more, Anna sent a picture of a decorated elephant, painted in white patterns.
Ganesha from my father: As a wedding present from my parents, I received a charming statue of Ganesha, the elephant god, god of hearth and home, remover of obstacles, with, I believe, the goddess Lakshmi seated on his arm. Since my father was born and grew up in the Baghdadi Jewish community of Calcutta/Kolkata, the India connection in our family had always been strong and Ganesha was an old friend. Even more so after 1967, when my father served as doctor to the dancers and other staff of Expo 67's India pavilion. The pavilion's creator, Saralah Sharma, become a close family friend. When Saralah took down the pavilion, we inherited some of its decorative papier maché sculptures, including one of Ganesha, still treasured by my sister Diana. Here is Peter's and my statue, posed with treats and candles on the dining room table back in Montreal.
Elephant and my mother: Some time in the later years of her life, we were sitting around the table in my mother's apartment. The game was: What kind of animal would you be ... ? My choice was a sleek, powerful black panther. To my surprise my graceful mother said she would be an elephant. Why? Her eyes slipping out of focus, looking somewhere beyond us all, she said, Yes, elephants remember ... What was she remembering?
Here is my mother's dining room table as I drew it in the days following her passing, wanting to capture something of her warmth while it was still palpable there.
My tree, roots, grandmothers; pain and healing
My tree brought me Earth-web-of-life connections, encounters with elephants and roots that look like trunks. But it also brought me closer than ever before to other kinds of roots.
I never met either of my grandmothers. My mother's mother, Rachel, died when my mother was 15. My father's mother was institutionalized for unknown reasons when my father was a boy. I don't think he saw her again after that, though apparently she lived into my lifetime. Ruby is on the left here, Rachel in the middle.
Sitting in my tree, eyes closed. Up and to my right I feel the presence of my grandmother Rachel; I had met her once before, in the hot dark womb of a sweat lodge, she was there, her hair long and tumbling down. And here she was again.
And then up and slightly left, my grandmother Ruby. So much pain. I feel so sorry and sad, feeling the pain. From both. Especially Ruby, whose life story remains obscured; but apparently she had been confined to an asylum, some sort of institution, when her children were very young. We don't know why. Terrible pain.
The moments with my grandmothers were intimate. I gave them love, and presence. I even introduced them to each other. I gave to them, and they gave to me. One time, my mother came along as well. At another moment I reached out to Ruby's own mother: what can it have been like for her to see her daughter Ruby put away like that?
But pain was also there with grandmother Rachel, wrenched away from her big family in sunny Alexandria, to cold, Victorian England. She suffered from this displacement and died young.
And I think of my own mother, also displaced, pulled away from her beloved London and all of the culture she drank up there. Having studied at the fabled Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London in the Golden Age of British theater ... then having to play the role of doctor's wife in frigid Winnipeg.
The goddess Durga and an Egyptian mummy
I had a dream around this time. A big rug was rolled up. I unrolled it and there inside was a mummy, like an old Egyptian mummy (my mother born in Egypt) ... The mummy was wrapped/bandaged in layers of ancient cotton, discolored and disintegrating. I began removing the bandages to see who was in there. To my surprise, it was the goddess Durga who came storming out, full of rage. Echoing somewhere in my awareness, from the mummy-imprisoned-in-a-rug: "I can't breathe!"
This mummy dream confirmed something I had recognized about myself a while back: inside me I carry vast quantities of anger, of rage. I was first able to accept this when I saw that my anger in the moment I was feeling it was just energy. It was real and it was there but I didn't have to take it out on anyone, nor did I want to; but I could use that energy for good. My studies with Thomas Hubl (below) have given me a framework for understanding these things. In a nutshell: Abuse buried is not abuse erased. Abuse endured without the resolution of justice accumulates anger at the injustice perpetrated and at the powerlessness experienced by the abused.
Other ways of honoring my female forebears
In my mother's line, one key female presence had always been Germaine Kanova, my mother's mentor. My thirst to know more about Germaine resulted in 2020 in a presentation at a wonderful online conference put on by the Four Corners centre for film and photography in London, England, in mid-September 2020. Click the image below for a synopsis of my presentation.
Last November, in the middle of the night, I made a phone call. Sitting in the dark around midnight, I listened to Dr. Daya Ram, Director and Professor of Psychiatry at the Central Institute of Psychiatry, Ranchi, the place where my research had led me to believe that my grandmother had been confined.
In response to my emails Dr. Ram had attempted to find records relating to Ruby. Although he had found nothing, his gentle kindness touched me. Each time I tried to end the conversation with thanks, Dr. Ram found a way to continue, just to be sure I understood that he understood that this was a delicate, personal matter, that meant so much to me.
The mystery continues. Adding to it is a worm-eaten copy of Macbeth that my sisters and I discovered after my mother's death, among her effects.
Time and Movement
Everything is always evolving and changing (1)
The shock of the rock cycle
While in San Antonio, Peter and I went on exploratory excursions nearly every weekend. Lasting from a couple of hours to overnight, these were always rewarding: so much to discover!
On a walk at Medina Lake in late July, we became intrigued by the round depressions at our feet and wondered what kind of rock we might be standing on.
Our investigations turned up among other things a Wikipedia entry on "the rock cycle". This was a total surprise and game-changer for me!
I had learned that there were three types of rock: igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic. Neat and tidy, three types with three different origins and processes of formation.
But now I read "The rock cycle is a basic concept in geology that describes transitions through geologic time among the three main rock types: sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous.
So rock, that most solid of entities, is actually constantly in the process of evolving and changing?!
But why should this be a game changer? Surely I had heard "this too shall pass" or "we can never step into the same river twice" quoted as ancient wisdom. Yes, sure, things always change ... but rock?!
In CIT, the 3-in-1 learning model moves us from cognitive understanding, sure, I get it, to an Aha! moment, when we actually witness the thing happening in our own life ... whoa, now I REALLY get it ! After that comes the final or embodiment stage, a transformation where the insight becomes part of who we are and how we see and respond to the world. For me, learning about the rock cycle shifted my perceptions and I began experiencing the world around me as being in constant movement.
Everything is always evolving and changing (2) Pema Chödrön and the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
The insight about constant movement was enhanced for me when I followed Ani Pema Chödrön's short course "Embracing the Unknown", based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. At age 71, I have developed quite an interest in dying. Not morbidly but realistically: this is up ahead for me and I don't really have much of a clue about the whole thing.
In Ani Pema's wonderful course from Sounds True, the concept of "bardo" was beautifully introduced, with humor and humility. While bardo can designate the gap between death and rebirth for those who have this perspective and belief, it can also be a powerful way to look at the constant flow of life as we live it. One moment ends and another begins, however these moments are defined.
Out of all of this I have emerged with a felt sense of constant movement, the movement happening always at so many different time scales from unimaginably rapid subatomic movements, to the rock cycle and geologic time, to other even longer cycles I as yet know nothing about. Life just feels different now.
Other ways of knowing: "the science" says ... and trauma theory
Visceral apprehensions, intimate communings and archival research have all been important for me over the past year. Another dimension of "ways of knowing" has come to me through studies.
In 2020 I completed Thomas Hubl's 6-month online course on "Conscious Healing" and began his 4-month course "Principles of Collective Trauma Healing". I also completed Life University's 10-week Compassionate Integrity Training (CIT) and went on to the next level with their Facilitator Training course. As well, I remained deeply involved with the Compassionate Listening Project and its evolution as it responded to the challenges of the Zoom era and to a heightened urgency to embody and model inclusivity. All of this engagement plunged me into practice and skill development. It also brought me food for thought.
I had signed up for Hubl's training course after attending his first Collective Trauma Summit, held in October of 2019. I was among over 52,000 people around the world who attended this free 9-day event, that included presentations by "29 leading visionaries, psychotherapists, mediators, researchers and peacemakers" whose goal was to "explore the potential for healing personal, intergenerational and collective trauma." The 2020 version of the summit registered 108,000 people in 100 countries. The 45+ speakers in 2020 included musicians, artists and poets, including Joy Harjo.
Born in Austria, Thomas Hubl traces his path to his childhood, witnessing the effects of the trauma of war on his beloved grandfather; and then to passionate volunteer work with the Red Cross, followed by his decision to become an emergency physician. The need to look more deeply into things caused him to step away from his medical studies in a deep contemplative retreat and exploration that lasted four years.
Hubl did not complete his medical studies but returned as a "mystic in the marketplace" determined to bring both science and ancient wisdom to bear on the healing of trauma. His work deepened after meeting the Israeli Jewish artist Yehudit Saporas who would become his wife. The reconciliation work that the two did with groups in Germany, Austria and Israel convinced Hubl of the reality of intergenerational trauma and the need to find ways to heal it.
I continue to study Hubl's analysis and techniques, which I find compelling. It is too early for me to give an adequate summary, but those interested should consult his new book, published in 2020 by Sounds True: Healing Collective Trauma.
Science, and secular ethics
All of the programs I've been involved with in 2020, and many, many more, have "science" as a central pillar in their ways of seeing, understanding and teaching. It has become standard in many circles to refer to the the role of the vagus nerve or of heart neurons or to explain the many things we are said to be "wired for" including empathy and our need for each other but also mistrust of those not in our in-group, negativity bias, etc. My neuroscientist husband tends to cringe at statements that begin "neuroscience says" or "the science says", pointing out that scientists do not all agree and that claims being made often exaggerate or oversimplify the state of a field. I have learned a lot from Peter, from his skepticism, but also from the fascinated amazement he expresses as he looks close up at aspects of our biology and neurology.
One thing I am struck by is the way in which we seem to be seeking these days to understand who we are as humans, why we behave as we do, by referring to who we were, to our non-human animal ancestors. The explanation that God made us like this is not enough for a lot of people any more. As well, in multicultural societies we may have different views about exactly how it is that God made us, or for many, if there is any God to have made us in the first place.
This appreciation of diversity was central in the Dalai Lama's creation of the Compassionate Integrity Training program. He reasons that if we are to build solid groundwork for individual and societal flourishing, we cannot base our practices on any one particular religion. The secular ethics curriculum that he and his collaborators created is based on "common sense, common experience and science." I find this worthwhile, and fascinating. I have questions. To be continued.
Peter successfully defended his PhD thesis in computational neuroscience on August 7, 2019. He then started applying for positions all over the world, from Crete, to Edinburgh, London, Malta and more. Months before he had even applied for the postdoc position he ended up getting at UTSA, I had a first session with Anna, the beautiful flamenco dancer and friend who had let me know that she is a clairvoyant. I was curious and sat with Anna while she journeyed through subtle realms (a first in my experience!)
Emerging from her "travels" Anna showed me a series of images to clarify different insights she had had. One of them had to do with what she called a "bull". Her sense was that this bull represented anger: "not a violent anger or even a physical one, it is like an overwhelm of anger, almost like a "cyst"? Like something inflamed within you." Only now reading this again do I appreciate how psychologically/psychically acute this insight was, given the above, including the Durga dream and Thomas Hubl's analysis of trauma.
But at the time Anna was puzzled by something else, something she claimed not to understand, despite the fact that the image was quite clear. "... the bull leaves the beach and starts to journey away, it gets on a long road, actually a small highway, and starts to travel on this road....(nothing more from this image now). So yes there is an aspect of travel to this energy. Strength and travel, for some reason."
At the time I had no particular resonance with the image she sent me of this "bull". Here it is, the picture Anna showed me. As I now know, it is a Texas Longhorn ... ! Almost as though I was meant to end up in Texas.
My time in Texas began with my visit to San Francisco for the Wisdom 2.0 conference, where I encountered an amazing community of people doing great things, as I detailed in previous posts here and here.
Also, staying in SF with our youngest son & his fiancee, echoed in deeply meaningful and almost uncanny ways for me the years I used to visit my friend Tim there, when I was their age. Details here.
It was back in San Antonio, on August 4, that I learned that my first boyfriend, Trevor David William Jones, had died. Trevor had been best friends with Tim, whom I used to visit in SF. And it had been through Trevor that I had met Catherine, whose memory I evoked at the very beginning of this post. Dance between past and present ...
Following my return from San Francisco, I spent the rest of 2020 in San Antonio.
The ten months I spent in San Antonio were transformative. They were for me; they were for many, many, many others too. The developing and ongoing COVID pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests; President Trump's responses to both. The deep polarization of America. The long lead-up to the election and the election itself. Experiencing all of this in the US felt completely different from how I imagine it would have been to go through it all in Canada.
I was living in the USA, in Texas, in San Antonio. I had had some sense of the Northeast, where my younger sister has lived, first in Manhattan, then in Brooklyn, and now in Connecticut ever since she moved to New York as a young artist in the 1970s. Or of Boston and then Detroit and then Los Angeles, where my middle sister has lived since her later teenage years.
But Texas is different. Living in Texas gave me a feel for the immensity and diversity of the USA generally. But immensity and diversity apply equally to Texas itself. Across the deep cultural and political diversities present in Texas, there is a kind of caring, however differently this might be expressed. And of pride. One of our first outings was to a nursery to buy some herbs. Which kind of fertilizer might be good? "This one right here: it's organic, and it's made right here in Texas!"
Living in Texas, looking into the whole moving landscape of history from the Spanish missions, the different original peoples, the blood and fight, the cruelty and oppression, the resilience, the pain, the pride, the layers. I started to feel US history as I never had before. The Civil War. Loyalties, abuses, slavery. All still so alive. The West. A wagon train trail ran right through "my" San Pedro Springs Park, in San Antonio.
San Antonio stole my heart. The softness of the air on my skin, the mockingbirds, the morning light, citrus and pomegranate, rosemary, the pecan trees outside my window, my neighbors. The place in back of San Antonio College where Peter and I would go most mornings, he to practice karate, me to do my flamenco. We called it our dojo.
A series of serendipities led me to Compassionate San Antonio.
I shall never forget being invited, a totally unknown entity, having arrived in town with nothing, no connections, being invited to a "virtual potluck" of the core group. There I met gorgeous people, relaxing at home, since this was virtual, some like me with wine glass in hand, sharing the pleasure of each other's company and talking about the work to be done.
I was curious about what kind of community it was that I had lucked into. With kind generosity, the people present told me something about the history of their group, starting with the 1994 San Antonio gang summit. I found it all amazing and still do.
Puzzled by their acuity in choosing what to attend to I asked, How do you do it? The answer was ... Well, you know, if you're by some railroad tracks, and you put your ear to the ground, you can hear what's coming before you can see it; that's what we do ...
And it goes on, week after week, people bringing support to where it is needed, doing good things. Just doing good things. Is it secular ethics? To me it is clear that faith is involved, though I wouldn't know how, at least not yet, to pin it down.
A couple of weeks ago one core member of the group said something that has stayed with me. I love it and here it is: We don't know what we're doing, and we don't know how to do it ... but we are going to take risky steps!
Here's hoping that 2021 will be a year of blossoming for me, for us all.