at customs the woman asks a few questions and then says, “so you’re spending the whole time in Northern Ireland then. that’s a whole nother country.” i know this, my sister autumn and i have been well prepared for the journey we’re on. but this is this first impression i get here, on the land – there is a battle over the story and it is reinforced with every step.
we have come to Northern Ireland by invitation, to do the work of Octavia’s Brood, of practicing collective visionary fiction. 20 years into a tenuous peace agreement, with brexit on the horizon, survivors and comrades and family members and nations and religions are all wondering: what’s coming?
our hope here is that these workshops will invite solutions and shared dreams in, to help these beautiful people dance with the grief, fear and mystery. we hope to, in some small way, help them shape change together.
since we announced we were coming here, i have been surprised at how many people have told me what i must do and see and read and watch and listen to to really understand what’s happening here. there is rarely a question of who is hosting me – if asked i would say i have been given tons of reading and things to watch, and i am learning the most from the stories of former POWs and hunger strikers and blanket protesters, about how they came into the conflict and how they made it through and why reconciliation is so important to them. i am humbled by their stories. i want others to hear them, i want these voices that feel so parallel to those i hear and focus on in the US to be heard.
most of the time when i travel to teach or facilitate, it is by invitation of people in that place. my rule of thumb has been that i come when and where i am called by communities i am of, committed to, and in solidarity with. so when people, especially people not from/of the place i am in, reach out to guide the journey without asking, i often feel a little defensive bristle in my heart…i want to say ‘trust the people here to welcome me, to show me what i need to see. i do.’
but even as i bristle, i can remember doing the same thing to people going to South Africa and Mexico and Thailand. i am very protective of who tells the story of Detroit, and just beginning to think i might be one of those storytellers. it’s a gift and curse of loving places, and of travel. we want to adventure and root, see everything and know it all. relive our lives through others. and, in conflict zones, we want the right side to be crystal clear.
i can already imagine future-me insisting that i know who has THE story in Northern Ireland, even as i recognize that the power of my experience here is being exposed to so many stories, so many perspectives of pain, persecution, regret, ignorance, resistance.
this desire to shape the story (of Northern Ireland and other places we go) speaks to trauma based tension in a way i recognize – after harm there is a desire to do with narrative what could not be done in person, clean up the story and claim a victory. but there’s no neat story here, and the main victory is not winning or losing, but sacrificing and living. these people who look so much alike have a coded, deep experience of being othered.
today we are told of a sunken wall in Belfast City Cemetery to keep the separation of catholics and protestants even in death, and i feel how far they’ve come, these teachers from both backgrounds, and others, around a table over wine and meatballs, cohabitating on contested land.
i am moved by how love flows amongst them, how many are in mixed religion love stories, how healing comes at the place where intimacy lives, how love knows what is truly different and the same about us.
i am also struck by the random nature of history. almost everyone i’ve spoken to was caught up in the conflict by accident, by circumstance. they were born into a lineage, a certain faith, a set of borders, a presumption of imperial rights, a working class that was hard to survive. most of them were shockingly young when they were sent to prison, or lost someone in ‘the troubles’. none of them have expressed being particularly religious, they were just raised a certain way and before they had much chance to choose anything or even learn about other options, they were being shot at, interrogated, bullied, taught who to love and who to fear, locked up or grieving or/and seeking the source of their fear and grief.
once in prison or in grief, they were shaped by those who showed up in the container with them.
so much of this makes me think of home. those that get caught in the matrix of racism and poverty and gun violence and patriarchy are rarely seeking that life path. there’s nothing romantic about living in constant fear, losing your community in an unacknowledged war, watching a generation become addicts and/or commit suicide in droves. there’s nothing romantic about spending any portion of life in prison because your rights are denied, or you’re from a different religious lineage than the dominant one where you live. civil wars, whatever sparks them, don’t end in unity, but in exhaustion.
another aspect of our work here is shaped by the humbling condition of being an American citizen. we know what it looks like when the “civil” war “ends” but the hatred never heals, the truth is never unveiled, and amends are never made. when the system never really shifts, when the conditions actually get worse, when the growth is symbolic and fatally compromised, when the past takes the future in its mouth and begins a destructive feeding. when we said no, but didn’t say a clear enough yes, when we find ourselves still fighting to win the rigged game.
we are so young, but we know this pain, the wound’s wide open.
we came to teach, so of course we’re the students. i am learning/reminded, i want this kind of big vast love to guide all movements. i want the love each of the people we’ve met have for each other, for humanity, and for this land, to be the central story – of this week, this place, and of my life. it takes love to look back, to really see what’s behind you/us, and still choose to dream the future together.
i am finding love in Northern Ireland.
(many more pictures and stories on Instagram feed)