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Cell to Cell: Art, Activism & Democracy

By: Janet Aalfs

For this is the world of light and change: the real world; and the reality of the artist is the reality of the witnesses. - Muriel Rukeyser

As an arts activist, my work is both solitary and community-based by design. When I am making art, alone or with others, I engage with collective roots – a luminous, vital, and encouraging source. In “Poetry, Curiosity, and Fearlessness,” a Lotus Peace Arts workshop I offered this past spring through the Truth School, we shared spoken, written, and meditative movement languages. As we explored Poetry + Motion = Poemotion, raw material arose through all of our bodies that led to this improvised group lyric:


What do I want

Cell to cell dancing

Beyond air beyond silence

Before the notion of time was born

Was there a spiral in the call of the loon

Broken haunting

Calling me inward

Marvelous spine

Engaging with the world

Curious to draw these letters

Prepare to shake hands with welcome

Justice blossoming and bearing fruit

Starflowers falling in the field

I gather them to remember you

Even more alive

Accepting grief

And moving through it

Like the low-slung branches

After the workshop one participant noted, "For as many millions of times I've heard it expressed that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings impacts the universe, this was the first time I actually physically felt that sensation as it pertained to me personally." This interdependence is what I believe our work for democracy, for the good of all, must recognize and protect. When we dare to face the odious realm of white supremacy – its perpetrators' refusal to recognize humanity's wholeness – we are called upon to take action. There is a universal principle, the crossroad, known by many names: Ubuntu, southern Africa; Tao, China. One + One/ I + You = a beautiful third thing/ We. The infinitely transforming energy of metaphor is an antidote to facist ideology and behavior.

“Art is action...,” wrote Muriel Rukeyser in The Life of Poetry, “you are likely to want to go

further into the world, further into yourself, toward further experience.” The more I study the ancient and ongoing poetry of Taiji/Qigong, Karate, Filipino stick arts, Capoeira, and other liberation movement languages from around the globe, the more clear it becomes that all are rooted in collaborative endeavors toward greater freedom and justice.

Another opportunity I had to share this work was as a panelist and performer at a Dodge Poetry Foundation event in New Jersey. The Poetry Coalition of the Academy of American Poets chose this year's theme from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” by Walt Whitman, What Is It, Then, Between Us?: Poetry and Democracy. Whitman's inquisitive line is the beginning of a stanza that ends with, “That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.” In democracy's terrain, where each citizen counts and is accountable to each and every other citizen, a poem that is brave and honest invites us to listen more deeply with our whole selves. Shifting is what we notice; it's what energy does.

Lucille Clifton's “I Am Not Done Yet” reminds us that we are individual and collective works-in- progress: “a changed changer/ i continue to continue/ where i have been/ most of my lives is/ where i'm going.” Poetry, from poiein, to make. One deeper breath, one truer word, one kinder step, one more generous action at a time, and barriers become less dense. Hope, then, is between us, and friendship grows.

This humanity we share, including conflict and resistance that occur naturally, calls us to expand our awareness of possibilities. Understanding how we are already connected and how we may strengthen our skillful work is crucial for the survival of our planet. The 12th century Persian poet and mystic, Rumi, has said it this way: “There is no companion but love,/ No starting, or finishing, yet, a road./The Friend calls from there:/ Why do you hesitate when lives are in danger!”

That we may continue to evolve, in How We Became Human Joy Harjo invokes: “Remember the earth/ whose skin you are:/ ...Remember all is in motion,/ is growing, is you.// Remember that language comes from this.” However, we are vulnerable to forgetting, and to being silenced by force. Fear, then, is between us. Our differences become walls without doors, chasms without bridges, words without roots. These stuck places of pain, when we pay attention, can provide important information about what and how we need to change.

Poems and other forms of creative expression that face and move through fear, mysterious at the heart and welcoming from every angle, transform suffering into healing. They converse across perceived barriers of time, space, and identity. They interrupt cultural assumptions and stereotypes. They expose and work to dismantle the specious constructions of patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism. They ask difficult and necessary questions, layer after layer, incisive and illuminating. Quest, a journey, + ion, energy. A poem-question offers sustenance for the challenge of each step.

The poetry that most moves and informs me imagines a world in which we recognize, as in Cheryl Savageau's Dirt Road Home: “Everything is a gift,/ there is no such thing as necessity./ Even the air we breathe, the sunlight,/ this mysterious music of breath and heartbeat.” Gratitude, then, is between us. Unconditional positive regard arises from spirit confidence – no place for shaming, blaming, undermining, destroying. Courage – couer, core, corazón, kokoro – in any language, heart.

Like Mary Oliver's “wild geese, harsh and exciting –/ over and over announcing their place/ in the family of things,” real democracy affirms that we are all made of each other. Sun-Buer, a 12th century Taoist poet and Immortal Sister has said it this way: “Before our body existed/ One energy was already there.” In brilliant paradox, democracy both celebrates and transcends differences to nourish the whole. Not a melting pot, but a vibrant weave, each cultural strand intact. Activism through involvement in the arts strengthens our resolve to keep following and expressing myriad truths to become more uniquely true. This one sky we share supports and sustains every celestial body, infinite in scope and variation, in constant motion guiding. One earth. One dark and light. One moment. This, between us.

Copyright © 2019 by Janet E. Aalfs. This piece was first published in Many Hands magazine, a publication of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Shinshii Janet Aalfs is founder and director of Lotus Peace Arts at Valley Women's Martial Arts, One Cottage St., Easthampton, MA, a non-profit community school since 1977. Poet laureate emeritus of Northampton, 7th degree black belt, integrative arts educator, and community peace activist, she has been teaching and performing weavings of martial arts, dance, poetry and spoken word locally, nationally, and internationally for 40+ years. Her writing is widely published, including two full-length poetry collections and several chapbooks. Aalfs joyfully continues to help create “sites for revelation” at schools, health centers, dance studios, art galleries, gyms, libraries, social service agencies, and other community organizations.

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