November 9, 2016

Normally I don’t check my phone as soon as I wake up. I give myself time for coffee, to write a bit, to ease into the day. And then I look.

But this morning was different. I had gone to bed not knowing, and wanted to know. I wanted to see the results much more than I wanted to see the birthday wishes I knew would soon pop up on my FB feed.

It’s hard to start your birthday with tears. It’s harder still to consider the implication of the election results.

I arrived at my internship demoralized, despondent, depressed. Early this morning, the shadow side of the nation was exposed for all of us to see. It’s not new; it’s always been there. It’s just that now we are all able to see the emotion that lies inside the endless tract houses and identical strip malls that pass for modern America.

And then words of wisdom reached through to me. From the ED of our organization. From my former roommate, from former colleagues, from friends.

Words of love.

I was reminded of the advice that Hercules received from his teacher when he set forth to slay the Lernean Hydra:

“We rise by kneeling; we conquer by surrendering; we gain by giving up.”

His weapons powerless against the terrible beast, Hercules had to kneel in humility in order to penetrate to the belly of the nine-headed Hydra. Once he surrendered to the monster and allowed himself to be overcome by it, he could hold it up to the light and thus destroy it.

It is in this same way that we will destroy the darkness that has split apart our society. We may need time to grieve, but after the grieving is done, we must also heal, for we cannot heal anything in another that we have not healed in ourselves. We will heal by humbly acknowledging and approaching the fear and darkness in our own hearts; by surrendering to it so that we know it truly; and then by holding it up to the light, see it completely and watch as it loses its power over us forever.

Inside each of us is the Hydra. Inside each of us is Hercules. We have the privilege of choosing our battle, and of deciding who shall win.

©2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced or copied in any way without permission of the author.




In the Isolation of the Chapel

In another post I wrote glibly about receiving a marriage proposal in the prison in Belize. I want to write now about what it was really like to have an inmate come up behind me, stealthily, unexpectedly. In his seductive voice I recognized manipulation, and in the same moment heard the potential for an answer to a question that has always puzzled me: how is it that women fall in love with men who are incarcerated?

I have assumed that some are able to see past the crime to the fundamental humanity of the person, but even that feels too simplistic an explanation, and there, in the Hattieville Prison, I had an opportunity to experience this for myself, to put myself in the shoes of a woman being preyed on by just such a man. Perhaps she is insecure. Most definitely, alone. Probably prone to wanting to rescue people.

He promised nothing, yet set out the possibility of a future together in such a convincing manner that for a moment it actually seemed plausible.

In the heat.

In the isolation of the chapel.

In a situation that should never have happened: me alone in the chapel with a man convicted of a violent crime, a man who admits to being aggressive.

I can feel his arms crossed on the back of my chair, his hands directly behind my neck. The left side of his face against the right side of mine. I smell his breath and feel the perspiration gliding between the strands of my hair. Observing that my body responds to the presence of a man so close to me. Feeling the mixture of fascination and curiosity and revulsion in response to my own curiosity and fascination.

I am paralyzed, unable to get up and end the interaction. Two things hold me to my seat: I am afraid of offending him. And I am terrified.  Because I perceive that he has seen my vulnerability. Has seen me.


For weeks in Belize I would wake up not knowing where I was. In the middle of the night I would be awakened by an unfamiliar sound and be surprised that I was not in Atlanta; each morning when I opened my eyes I needed several minutes to reorient myself to my surroundings.

I attributed the phenomenon to simple homesickness and to a subconscious avoidance strategy to cope with the unending violence around me, and assumed it would stop when I returned home. It did not. For weeks after returning home, awakening was accompanied by disorientation. Past and present, two locations, fuse into dislocation. The experience of being in Belize is present to me, at times more present than what is right in front of me.


© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced or used in any manner without permission of the author.

The Gang(s) That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

The shootout on Vernon Street was in the news the next day. It was reported that both of the boys, the shooter and his intended victim, were in custody, though the police had not been able to find the gun; that it was a personal dispute; that they were trying to mediate the dispute.

And for a few days, things seemed quiet in the neighborhood.

But then a women in our parents’ class arrived visibly shaken one evening. She had been in the funeral procession for a friend who had died, and, luckily for her, had moved away from where she had been standing to talk to someone else. While they were still lined up on the sidewalk, waiting to enter the church, an SUV pulled up, and someone started shooting. The grandson of the man who had died was shot in the head. A few moments earlier, she had been standing next to him.

She skipped the funeral and came to class.

When we returned home, M. had messaged my phone, wondering if we were OK. She had heard that someone had been shot in the head on Vernon Street, and was checking to be sure it wasn’t one of us.

And she commented that this was going to light up the gang war even more.

Sure enough, over the next few days, the newspapers report daily retaliatory shootings. The funeral shooting happened on a Thursday. On Friday, a 15-year-old walked into the courtyard of the Queen’s Street police station and opened fire, trying to kill the shooter, but hitting four other people instead, including a pregnant staff member and a police officer.

More shootings on Saturday, and on Sunday someone fired 19 shots into a crowd, trying to hit one person.

Putting aside the larger issue of the gang wars, the biggest problems, in my opinion, is that no one here is a very good shot. Including the police. There are a bunch of children running around this city with automatic weapons, and no one taught them how to shoot.

They literally can’t shoot straight.

The church where the funeral shooting occurred is on the same street as the building where we teach. We are scheduled to teach a CBCT class for the teachers at the school affiliated with the church.

We know we are not targets of the violence. In fact, we have been told that we are off-limits for the gangs in the neighborhood. I don’t take this seriously until we are having a conversation with some of the guys in our adult class at the prison, and one of them is talking about some things in our neighborhood, and I ask him, “Where do you think we live?”

And he tells me. He knows which street, which house, that we live upstairs. He has been in prison for 17 years, and he knows all of this. And tells me not to worry.

So, unless we do something stupid, like walking around wearing a bunch of jewelry (which I don’t have) or flashing a bunch of cash (don’t have that, either) we’re fine.

Except there is this wee small problem of stray bullets, and the very real possibility of becoming collateral damage.

Our plan had always been that T. would depart Belize on July 12, for a pre-existing family commitment, and that I would stay until the end of the month to finish the class for the teachers and to offer some ongoing classes for parents and at the prison.

I am grateful when T. gives voice to the concerns that are mounting in my own head and heart.

“I don’t think it’s safe for you to stay on here after I leave,” he said one night.

“I know,” I replied. “I don’t think I can go into the prison alone. And I can’t walk home alone at night.”

“It isn’t even safe for you to go to that school in the day. The funeral was in broad daylight.”

And then we try to think of all the ways we can make it work. I could stay, and take taxis everywhere I need to go, and just stay at home when I don’t absolutely have to go out? Or maybe we can reschedule the class for the teachers, do it on a more intensive schedule, and complete it before T. departs?

We suggest this, and Tina, our partner for that part of the project, tries to make it work. But we’re cutting into vacation time for the teachers, and registration is low.

Reluctantly, we agree with Tina that we should cancel the class.

I am deeply disappointed by this. I was looking forward to working with her foundation, and looking forward to working with the teachers, who are stressed, like most teachers, and need support.

And I had thought that, with a lighter teaching load for the last couple of weeks of my stay, I would have time to hop on buses and explore the country.

But this isn’t a country that an American woman should wander around on her own. I will soon find out why.

©2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be used or reproduced in any manner without permission of the author.


Dublin to Belfast

The promised wifi and outlets on the train don’t work consistently. So I journal, read, listen to music. Wondering how I will know the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. And then see a Union Jack painted on a concrete siding before we reach Portadown, and know that we are in NI. Realizing that if the Brexit vote goes through, some kind of more formal border crossings will be put in place, because the two countries will no longer both be part of the EU.

Everything I need

There are two SOS buttons in the train bathroom; one mounted on the wall a few feet above the floor, the other near the floor on the other wall. Someone has prepared for the possibility that a person might fall and not be able to get up.

My compartment in empty save for one man. I have four seats and a table to myself; the waiter brings a menu and I order tea. I’m comfortable, reflective, and sorry the journey won’t be longer. It’s going to be hard to be open enough to get to know the rest of the group when I meet up with them. And then I read the free newspaper I’m handed, read the front page news story recounting the statistics that there is a bombing every week in Northern Ireland, and know that the veneer of peace is a façade. In whose service, I wonder?

I’ve caught an earlier train than planned, so no one is at my guest house when I arrive. I laid down on the lawn in the walled garden and napped. Not many places in the world where I would feel safe doing that, but I do here, calm and peaceful on the grass, the blue sky above me. I awoke when children started filling the streets, on their way home from school. Donna, who runs the guesthouse, couldn’t be lovelier. I go out to dinner, and could walk more, but want to organize my room and sleep. I woke up once during the night, thinking it must be morning because birds are singing, but then learn that some birds sing in the night, here. After breakfast and switching out sim cards I walk to Ormeau Park, enjoying the green, the peacefulness. I am wondering if I am in a Catholic or Protestant neighborhood, and how I would know the difference. Back at the guest house, friends have arrived. I make a Skype call home, and then we go to dinner.

The garden at Roseleigh Guest House

We tour Crumlin Gaol, learn about the dirty protests, the floggings, the procedures for executions, which are particularly horrific for me, because of the element of surprise. The prisoner bound and his cell door opened. Expecting a long walk down the corridor. Instead, a bookcase slides away on the wall of his bathroom, revealing the gallows and the witnesses waiting there. It was only a little over a week ago that I led the prayers for a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner who was put to death in Jackson, Georgia. Is one method any more humane than the other? To know, or to be surprised?

We walk out to the area where the executed men are buried, mostly in unmarked spaces, yet a few are memorialized with initials carved into the stone wall. A small uneasiness takes root in the pit of my stomach here in the gaol, and continues as we get into the black taxis for a tour of some of the murals and the peace wall that separates the Protestant and Catholic communities. And I start to wonder: who is really profiting from all of this?

The neighborhood where my guest house was located turns out to be a fairly well-off, historically integrated area. It looks and feels very different from poorer, less-educated enclaves of people who are still sticking to their partisan ideas and haven’t fully bought into the idea of peace. And yet our tour is led by men who live with metal in their bodies, a constant reminder of the Troubles, who have made a conscious decision that they want a different future for their children from what they knew growing up.

And I realize that the essential ingredient of reconciliation is intentionality.

I realize also that I do not have a definition of forgiveness that works for me, or for this situation.

Nor do I know what reconciliation truly is.

© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved.

The Repetition Compulsion

Last month I traveled to Northern Ireland as part of a study-abroad program with the University of Georgia. I had several reasons for wanting to go: the trauma focus of the program; my experience doing international work, and intention to continue working internationally; my own love of travel. We were asked to keep a journal recording our experiences, and from that journal to write a paper comparing our experiences on the trip to a conflict at home. What I will write here is very different from what I intended to write about at the outset. But it will record, as best as I am able, the process of change I experienced during this trip. I could not write about it immediately after, and may not do it justice now, sitting in Belize City, in 100F temperatures, 100% humidity, and no air-conditioning – in other words, physical circumstances that could not be more different from Northern Ireland.

I started this journal in the Sky Club at the international terminal in Atlanta. I’m flying to Dublin, then taking the train to Belfast. My preparation time for the trip was frantic; papers and exams at the end of the semester; when I return home I will do a quick turnaround to Belize, and not return to Atlanta until the end of July. The person whom I thought would be cat-sitting while I’m in Belize isn’t able to do it, and I’m trying to piece that together while packing for two trips, and ensuring that the teaching materials and equipment I will need in Belize will be ready. An endless stream of packages arrives from Amazon. Equally endless trips to REI. Friends come over in the afternoon, and we share a bottle of Tattinger. Among many other favors, they will be part of the cat-sitting team this summer.

Despite all the miles I have traveled, I do not like to get on international flights alone. And so, though I have emails to answer and a to-do list that seems it will never end, I am enjoying the time of just sitting, having a drink, eating. I have had little time to simply rest, and haven’t been sleeping well.

The man sitting at the row of desks is taking up two seats. He’s either from India or of Indian descent. Evidently his suit coat is so important that it requires its own Herman Miller chair. I plugged my phone in at that desk to charge, and he almost moved his jacket so that I could sit down, but then he saw I was a woman and put his jacket back down again. And so I am reminded, in this subtle but not-so-subtle way, of my second-class status in this world. I am only female. I do not count. I’m not in a mood for a fight, so I’m not going to say anything. But I’m relieved when he gets up to go to his gate, and I can’t say that my expression toward him is pleasant as I get up to move to the desk and open my iPad.

I am caught in the liminal space I inhabit before every trip, that space between being excited about going, and wanting to stay at home. Right now, my desire to stay at home is winning.

For several days I have awakened in the middle of the night with an intense fear that I have just seen and forgotten something of great import. Not something that I have forgotten to do, but something I know, something elemental, crucial, sacred. I hope this journey will be a time of remembering.

Onboard, settled into my seat, I experience moments of immanence. How do I break through – to what? I am not trying to avoid the quotidian, only to find the divine in each moment of it. It is the cheap, the tawdry, that trips me up. I try to capture what I observe in lines to post later to my Zen poetry group.
In the noonday sun
bubble-gum pink lipstick stain
on Marlboro light butt

Leonard Cohen on my headphones. There’s not much music I can handle when I’m flying – it’s Cohen or the Flying Mystics. We’re late leaving, waiting for people with tight connections, and then the gate crew can’t get the jet bridge off the plane, and now it’s raining. As the rain moves out, it’s sunny again, but twilight is gathering, and the drops on my window swim furiously toward the back of the plane as we finally make a choppy take-off into the light of the west, leaving Atlanta behind, shrouded in grey clouds and soft rain mist. As we climb and turn I am temporarily blinded by the sun.

I had forgotten this soft space, this place between here and there, between sleep and dreaming, this space where time is crossed over and loses its meaning, if it ever had any at all.

We’re flying through a storm. The lightning is magnificent and awesome, around us, above us, below us. The pilots are trying to climb above it. Leonard is singing Hallelujah and if the lighting strikes this plane that will be the last song I hear in this lifetime. I’m disoriented by what I take to be the horizon but is really a horizontal mass of smokey grey clouds topped with white froth, then the darkening sky above. And as we drop in altitude we appear to be sinking underwater in cold greyness.

A few days ago Daniel Shapiro published an essay in the New York Times entitled “Of Dating and Diplomacy.” In it he reflects on the repetition compulsion, a term coined by Freud to describe our tendencies to give in to “the tyranny of routine,” to cling to identities and patterns of behavior that are familiar, no matter how damaging these may be. Patterns that play out in individual lives, in relationships, between groups and countries. As I read it I knew that somehow Shapiro’s words would be relevant to my experience in Northern Ireland, though not exactly how.

It took nearly a decade to implement the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Maintaining peace is still a struggle. Emotional reconciliation in ethno-political struggles requires a break in the patterns of behavior between groups. What is the corollary process on a personal level? What steps to we take beyond an intellectual understanding of our patterns, and deep emotional acknowledgment of their allure?
The power of identity. As I examine the patterns locking Protestants and Catholics into an identity that fuels conflict rather than reconciliation, I am looking as well at the patterns I have become so closely identified with, and try to understand their allure.

My reflections will be about the relationship of the internal process of change with the external world, inner peace and outer peace – because commitment to change isn’t enough, and being a peaceful person in and of itself isn’t enough. What does that even mean? So many of the phrases we toss around are ultimately meaningless. What is inner peace? A lot of people are at peace with themselves while really behaving quite badly in the world.

© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved.


Getting to the heart of the matter

A few weeks ago, during a period of daily torrential rain in Atlanta, I needed new windshield wipers and installed them on my car. Driving in the rain the next day, they just didn’t seem to be working right. The water appeared to be smeared across my windshield, rather than cleared away.  I wondered if the windshield had warped, or if the wiper blades were bent. Something was clearly wrong, but I could see well enough and made it home safely.

The next morning I inspected the new blades. On each was a piece of clear plastic imprinted with the words “PROTECTIVE COVER. REMOVE BEFORE USE.”

I pulled away the coverings, and the wipers worked perfectly.

As I laughed at myself I realized that our hearts are like that. Just as those plastic strips protected the wiper blades but prevented them from working properly, many of us feel we have very good reasons for keeping a protective covering on our hearts — but unless we’re willing to work on softening that, we can’t see the world with clarity, and we can’t connect authentically with others.

And that’s what compassion practice is for: to show us how to transform our relationships with ourselves and others, so that we can see clearly and feel connection, and know the joy and freedom and security of an unguarded heart.

© 2015 Teresa I. Sivilli