Note: This post includes some experiences as a survivor of sexual violence, in case a reader may wish to know this in advance.
The Chicago weekend-scape was a choice to breathe lightly after an August whirlwind. I felt unsettled by the Intensive Retreat at Crow’s Nest Center for Shamanic Studies, and curious about starting a Kalamazoo project in community arts, s.t.e.p. — speaking truth equals power. These spaces relate to one another in that each has been part of my healing as a survivor of violence.
I ventured favorite Downtown haunts, quiet spaces to explore art with a twist: the Museum of Contemporary Photography (Columbia College) and the Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection (SAIC). Spreading my wings from the Loop and bunk-beds at the International Youth Hostel, I headed north to a Victorian Bed & Breakfast. Its entrance had the grandest tree!
My room was a renovated corner in the basement. Upon settling in and showering away the hot day, I became quite agitated. I headed to the Chicago Diner in short order for excellent vegetarian fare, and journaled through the internal storm. My web of traumatic associations had been shaken. Generally speaking, I had experienced a trigger from old trauma.
The Basement with its corner room was the source. Because when I was a child, the final sexual violation by my uncle took place in a basement-corner bar while playing hide and seek. What I newly absorbed on this occasion was that my renovated bedroom as an adolescent was in the same corner as the assault. The understanding was a trickle of things to pour forth in coming months.
The next morning, I sat outside the B&B near the grand tree and talked by phone with a friend who was in crisis. I admired the height sandwiched between buildings. The literally uplifting sight calmed my rather shaken soul in conversation with another shaken soul. Even with all this space between us — the friend, myself, and the tree — the moment was healing.
On the way out of the city, I paused at the north-end of Lincoln Park. There I befriended another tree who became a companion over lunch, its trunk supporting my back. I gazed at the limbs above and around me, a pattern like the roots below, many and far-reaching. Gathering my belongings for the train station, a surprise greeted me: a perfectly-intact, molted exoskeleton of a cicada! I was surprised not to have seen it earlier and accepted the token as a gift, whose story is worthy of its own post. Because, did you know, cicadas burrow underground and feed off roots between two to 17 years?!
After returning to Kalamazoo, I found myself in a dilemma. The art studio to which I moved before the weekend-scape felt very unwelcoming. Why? I thought maybe it was because of needed improvements to the space under construction. Despite my eagerness to connect with artists while creating in a collective space, I was inhibited to be there. And the reason I readily voiced — getting settled into a new home — was fairly acceptable and true.
The deeper truth, though, was more challenging to acknowledge to myself, let alone express to others. The fact was that my new studio was in a dark basement, and the recent experience in Chicago had struck a raw nerve with this awareness. What resided on an intuitive level slowly was surfacing from the shadows into the light.
And from the fall into winter, I wrote poetry that became the heart of my public work in 2014 including “Emergence: An Intimate Performance,” a collaboration with percussionist Nicholas Brabhan. The title poem was composed as a found-word collage during personal retreat in the Hiawatha Forest over New Year’s, and published by Lansing Online News as part of its Poem-a-Day series for National Poetry Month.
This collage along with other new mixed-media pieces are on exhibition through April at Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative of Kalamazoo. So there’s still time to check it out! On Saturday, April 26, two events provide this chance: the debut of Steam, an open-mic series with with spoken-word artist D.C.; and an afternoon with co-exhibitor Denise Miller at Medium to Metaphor.
A visible feature among these recent collages is their black background. What’s not visible is the exception among this body of work: the piece entirely created in the basement studio. The triptych Field of Debris, like the other works, began in the midst of overwhelming emotion. The images that initially captured me — the skulls and a burned but living woman wrapped in gauze — also unnerved me. In fact, I was reluctant even to talk of the work, disturbed by its contents.
But completing Field of Debris was a transformative process, as I moved through an overwhelming state into victorious acceptance of self. That’s how symbols of ghostly skulls evolved into winged, watchful guardians. That’s how the symbol of a veiled woman facing the fire evolved into a multitude of butterflies. That’s how I exhibited the work among survivors of childhood sexual violence, and now am now shining light up/on “The Basement.”
My performance work this year across Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, and South Bend challenged me in a parallel way. How would I stay in the present moment — or convey my current understanding of healing in its real-time process? Themes of Dis/Orientation, Vulnerability, and Bare Feet provided “in-roads” to these in-flesh encounters, as did invitations to audiences to participate during performances.
Thanks to each of you who supported me in some way through this transition! Those in my spiritual communities of Red Cedar Friends (Quakers) and Crow’s Nest Center. Survivors with listening ears and open arms. Co-organizers and collaborators across multiple locales. Loved ones sharing tears and exercising patience. I can’t adequately put in words the depth of my gratitude.
What comes next? Well, it seems time for me to pause with wider public appearances. My aim still is to share tools towards healing: poetry and collage; movement and voice; interactive performance. Such occasions may take shape as workshops, individual sessions, or small-audience engagements. Inquiries are welcome at MelissaHasbrookATgmailDOTcom.
Note: Edited April 30, 2014.