The marking upon my body…

I had four free hours.

Four hours, that was it. I was in Iceland production managing the premiere of my dear friend Samantha Shay’s opera, of Light. I was in Iceland. But I had only seen the interior walls of our beautiful theatre.

I landed on Saturday morning at 6am, hit the ground running and hadn’t stopped since. This was expected, opening a show is no small thing for anyone involved, especially those in producing and management. I landed Sunday, it was now Wednesday, and I had four hours to claim for myself before I needed to return to the theatre. Considering the workload, sleep would have been my first option, but there was another choice that would offer the peace and stillness of sleep, in addition to something unknown. Through this window of freedom, I decided to engage in a ritualistic tea ceremony.

Some context. This production, this opera, was a completely unique artistic and spiritual experience. Samantha, the director, had woven into the production her spiritual practice, creating a process and product that was extremely experimental, ritualistic and deeply intimate. The experience, for me, resided somewhere in between spiritual ritual and theatre. Of course, theatre is ritual in the end (or in the beginning), but we have long since separated ourselves from that birth. Samantha had beautifully fused these forgotten sisters, and in this experimentation offered additional platforms for both the audience and her production team to partake in a meditation through tea ceremony that would enrich and prepare for the experience of the production. The version offered to the production team was a tea and hand-poked tattoo ceremony with two of her fellow priestesses.

ecd9c766a3d1cd92eb2083c5aab712b5I really didn’t know anything about the ceremony beyond…you drink tea in ancient ritualistic form, you meditate in this action and there is tattooing. I had no interest in the tattooing, as I had not a single marking on my body, however I knew I wanted to take advantage of experiencing the tea ceremony. It was a rare opportunity to immerse myself in this ancient, cultural practice of meditation. I had four free hours, and while my body could have used sleep, my brain craved the peace that true meditation brings. Four free hours – tea and meditation it was. Bring on the stillness.

When I say I knew nothing about what to expect in this ceremony, I truly mean it. I knew we were drinking tea and meditating – that’s it. And that is all that was really explained to me by Baelyn, the tea priestess who offered ceremony and by Samantha. We drink in silence until we are done. I could hardly prepare for the experience that followed.

Baelyn practices the art of tea just as that – an art. Everything feels simplistically intentional, everything is ritual. There is an alter-like setting that we all sit around, upon elevated cushions. Baelyn sets out the bowls, from which we drink. She rinses the bowls with the boiling water, from what looks to be a very old traditional kettle, heating over a single flame. She breaks apart the bark of the tea; she smells it, we smell it. Everything is shared, everything is sacred. Even the water that is discarded is placed in what looks like a large Tibetan singing bowl and eventually returned to the Earth. Baelyn’s hands move through each activity like a dance and silently, we breathe together.

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Baelyn Elspeth – All Matters of Spirit

Eventually the first bowl of tea is poured for all, in this case, for Baelyn, Talia (tattoo artist and priestess) and myself. Silent permissions are granted and we drink. I take my social cues, as one does in new circumstances and I drink the tea. I sip the tea. I take my time. I engage my senses. I finish and place the bowl in the exact mirrored position as Talia has placed her empty receptacle. Baelyn pours another bowl and my mind…begins…to race.

She’s pouring another bowl?

She’s pouring another bowl.

Wait…how many bowls will we drink?

I don’t usually drink this much tea.

I don’t usually drink this much liquid.

She’s pouring another bowl and I have to drink it.

I have to finish the bowl.

I wonder how many bowls we will drink.

They are drinking the tea.

I have to drink the tea.

I can drink this bowl…but I really don’t think I can drink another.

Can I even finish this bowl?

Just finishing this bowl.

Maybe this is the last bowl.

She’s pouring another bowl.

Shit.

I have to drink more tea.

I honestly don’t know much tea I can drink.

I’m going to have to pee.

I can’t drink this much tea.

But I have to drink it.

They are drinking the tea.

I have to drink the tea.

I can’t drink all this tea.

I have to drink the tea.

This went on for…from what I can remember…about three additional bowls of tea. My mind was on this continuous loop of anxious obedience. Occasionally an image would emerge, an orange, stars, moving spirals, a blood cell, a dear, a moon, but only to be quieted by my cerebral loop. On the third or fourth bowl, as I was finishing, I decided to leave just a little liquid at the bottom of the bowl. Just enough to make the leaves dance about. I’m testing the waters. I’m attempting to break the self-projected expectation. I place my “unfinished” (I left BARELY any liquid) bowl down for Baelyn to collect, which she does and then proceeds to discard the remnants into the beautiful singing basin.

Something snaps inside me.

The only way I can describe it is like the pole of a tent. The ones that have elastic on the interior which allows for the bend, but snap into place when extended out. Something snapped.

I don’t have to drink the tea.

I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.

I don’t have to follow the rules.

I can make my own rules.

I’m not sure words can relay the significance of the above realization, but after a year of consistent chaos, consistent change and heartbreak…this moment was precisely what I needed. This moment in the tea ceremony was a paradigm shift of a larger transformative movement that has been occurring within me for the past 2 years or so. This moment, the tea delivered precisely what I needed. I described this moment and leading up to it to a close friend this way;

I’ve had this vase, in my hands, for my entire life. It has served me well. And over the course of a lifetime it’s been chipped, cracked, painted, re-surfaced, re-painted and modified. During grad school the work I engaged in allowed me to expose myself, to truly look at myself in a deeper, more transformative way. This process was extremely difficult and tumultuous at times, so much so that I dropped the vase. It broke, naturally. But I was determined, supported and quickly began to piece this scared vessel back together, as best I could. There were moments of triumph and moments of struggle. This process would take time. Over the past year additional challenges caused me loose balance and once again, the vase slipped from my fingertips and fell to the earth. All the progress, all the work I had done felt meaningless to gravity as I stared at again, my broken spirit. I sunk to the earth and for some, I wept among the ruins. Slowly gathering the remains, I continued to bend in sorrow at the thought of again moving forward in repair. But tea happened.

Tea happened and I found the Earth. I found my feet beneath tethering me to the strength of the Earth. For the first time, I stood. My hands free of my ceramic container, I stood alone and opened my eyes. I was surrounded by shelves of beautiful vessels, I never noticed them before.

I can make my own rules.

I can choose a new vase.

I can make my own life.

I can choose my happiness.

I extended my arm and grabbed an entirely new vase.

The tea taught me, more than I could ever have imagined. After this suspended realization as Baelyn discarded my remaining liquid, she poured another bowl. And within me, stillness. I accepted this bowl of tea with a clear mind. I took three sips and placed my unfinished cup down, signifying my satisfaction.

There was an exchange of breath which signified the completion of this portion of the ceremony. I remember seeing Baelyn’s eyes before me as she collected my bowl – it’s not the end, its merely the beginning. The three of us shared the experience, images that came up, all tuning into my experience. I was reminded that this ceremony was for me, even the efforts of these powerful women were focused for my experience. The discussion was powerful and extremely cathartic.

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Original art by Talia Migliaccio

As we continued to talk, Talia began to sketch. I don’t remember precisely how it was communicated or if there was a specific moment, but I knew I wanted to mark this moment on my body. I’ve never wanted a tattoo in the past because as an evolutionary creature, I’ve always known that the person I am today will not be the person I am tomorrow, and how can I place a fixed marker upon my body without knowing that the image would progress/transform as I do. But somehow I knew that this moment was different, this moment needed to be marked and I trusted these two women, I trusted their art. I trusted the tea.

Talia’s art work is unbelievable; it is magical and deeply intimate. In creating a tattoo from this experience, Talia’s art works as the foundation and then collaboratively we engage in which direction to go visually. Talia’s work is the point of departure, her hand is the communicator of this expression, but somehow the development of the image felt entirely collaborative. At some point there is a discussion about where on the body it will be placed, which we are all in complete agreement about. And we begin.

Talia sketches the frame work on my body. I have a moment to go to the restroom (the first time since drinking a substantial amount of tea), and I look in the mirror. I look at this beautiful image marked upon my solar plexus, marked upon my body. I look at my face and all at once, I see a woman both known and unknown to me. I am filled with gratitude.

I return to the room, lay back, and Talia begins the process of hand-poking her art upon my ivory skin, an expression of our moment together. We talk…of so many things; spirit animals, change, the elements, cosmic movements, love. I lay, occasionally flinching, breathing with these beautiful women, talking, being marked and watching a swirl of small insects spiraling above my head in the skylight as the Sun creeps slowly down towards the Earth.

I feel exhausted, but energized and completely peaceful. I feel ready. I feel ready to ask for what I want of life. Ready to choose the vase I wish to carry, and craft it as my own. I feel a desire to live, a willingness to engage in multiplicities of living. I feel incredibly alive.

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My beautiful remembrance, on my beautiful body.

I don’t have to drink the tea.

I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.

I don’t have to follow the rules.

I can make my own rules.

 

I can make my own life.

I can choose my happiness.

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