Living in bondage

This morning we walked the slave trail along the river. Imagining shackles, our interlocked hands held on to each other, as if in some sort of séance calling forth ghosts from that river of commerce that was the slave trade in this city.  Trudging clumsily along, single file, simultaneously dragging and holding on, we were invited to enter with our hearts the darkness of that night, to feel the filth and bruises on our bodies, naked and cold, to experience the confusion and terror. 

In the midst of that disorientation, my heart reached for something to hold onto, sorting and searching frantically its hidden chambers, recalling the ways it had learned to survive the immediacy of trauma. My body responded in familiar ways to calm the chaos it felt. One foot in front of the other. Hold on to the moment before you. Feel the presence of what is behind you. Breathe.

Sensing the sharp contrast between the roughness of jostling and the coolness of the air, my feet fell quickly into the shuffling gait of my 86 year old mother inside the box of her walker, within her own confinement – a confinement of body and mind- within the walls of the institution. And I thought of the myriad ways our autonomy is stripped, our ability to choose denied. How the human journey is continually reshaped by such enclosures.  I wondered if perhaps the most noble and mysterious thing about being human is the way in which we survive our bondages.

Bondage. That word comes to me succintly as we walk. Holding on to the person one footfall afore, feeling the handhold of the one just behind, this small band of travelers with whom I am bonded brings a bizarre but intimate comfort. We are bonded together in and by this experience, desperately needing one another , holding on because of the trauma we share. This is the only cure I can conjure up from these ghosts to survive this terrible breaking. Hold on and Connect.

But of course, the cure for being broken is always (re)connection.

I thought of the people’s hearts severed from their land, surveying the plants here, seeking their bearings by reconnecting with the earth in this place, searching for home. I thought of infants and children ripped from their mothers’ arms being gathered into the bosom of a stranger, pain being healed by being held, again.

Last evening, we were called by the haunting melody of the flute to gather lost pieces of ourselves – pieces we have given away, pieces that have been stolen –  to call them home. I wondered, how does one begin to heal a brokenness such as that?   As I walked that trail today, my body remembered how I have done it.

Perhaps it is true that the long lasting bond, of which I have so long lamented the loss, was severed long, long ago, but I learned to bond again and again, each time one was severed. Throughout successive traumas and successive bondages, I held on, bonding over and over again,  becoming something new each time in the (re)union.

 I have fantasized that there are those who bond in a more full-bodied way than I, who have been able to hold on by more than a hand, who have known themselves to belong, to be loved, to be good, to be connected whole-heartedly, but I suspect today that this projection is just that, a fantasy. Perhaps each one of us has successive bindings. We connect and hold on in order to survive each time in each place because each connection makes us more whole, each (re)union makes us more human.

In the midst of my heart experiencing the atrocity of slavery, my head was recalling the images from the film, Salt of the Earth, which documented the life of photographer, Sebastio Salgado, whose decades of work chronicled human suffering and terror, remembering how he yearned to heal himself by returning home, to his birthplace, which he then grievously discovered had been also desecrated. There, he set about restoring the land, planting seedlings by the thousands. The homeland he subsequently reforested is now a refuge. The land has reclaimed its goodness. Birds have returned to sing. Wildlife has returned to run free. The man has been healed. Telling the story of that film to my friend, she suggested to me that perhaps our severance from the earth is the original source of our brokenness. Each successive disconnection is piled, layer upon layer, upon that primal breach. I thought about how this felt true, that we are able to dishonor and desecrate the other when we believe we are separate from it, different than it, when we believe that it is an object we can use, forgetting that it is a sacred part of us, we a sacred part of it in a seamless whole

And so I long to lay down on the earth now, knowing it will heal all my wounds if I can just re-member myself to her here. 

We visited the Burial Grounds of the enslaved. Until a few decades ago, this land had been paved over, made into a parking lot. Uncovered now, we walked through that greening field, where bodies, once desecrated have returned to the earth. Set free? Or bonded again to that primal relationship with the earth?

We survive by holding onto our fellow travelers here- for a mile or a century – one step at a time, together, bonded in bondage, whatever those bondages look like. Whatever our brokenness looks like, we love in the midst of atrocity. We find intimacy in the midst of terror.  Until perhaps, at last, we lie down on the earth and are healed.






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