by Jennifer Miller
Now I have to confess I freaked out about the Festival of Devotional Arts. I had sent a number of unanswered emails and was beginning to think the whole thing was a scam. I’d worked myself up into a tizzy demanding my money back! Then I heard back “check your spam” and sure enough all the details were there. I mean there must be a better way to scam people. I need a chill pill.
After my week in Italy (killing myself walking from Lucca to Siena–97 miles in 7 days to be exact), I took the train to Rome and the next morning I flew from Rome to Barcelona and spent the night at the unimpressed Turin Hotel.
At first whiff the city was dirty and crowded, but it grew on me after walking down touristy La Rambla Ave, not because of the street, but because I met a charming artist. I bought a painting from him for only 10 euros (some other American was bartering… dude, I wanted to scream at him, the art is worth way more than 10 euros!) I lusted after a second painting but didn’t have enough money so I walked back to the hotel and grabbed my money belt and ran (that’s being generous) back. He was still there.
He offered me water and told me to wait because the price I would pay at the store across the street would be different from his price. We drank acqua frizzante and chatted some more. We did our best since he didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak much Spanish (that’s also being generous), but what I did understand was his passion and imagination. I fell a little in love with him and the city at the moment. And, earlier that night, I took a delightful Tango class. Of course, I was the only single person there, but the teacher spent extra time with me and complimented my dancing so that made up for being alone! I was seeing Barcelona with fresh eyes.
She began to remind me of New Orleans: colorful, gritty, diverse, and real. But full-on love happened when I discovered a gelato shop that offered “motojio” gelato. I sat down to savor and two American women asked if they could join me. We hit it off and one of the women shared she used to live in Los Angeles but had moved to Barcelona. She had this amazing opportunity to do something with the Super Bowl and make a lot of money, but after some soul searching, decided there were better things to do with your life than make a shit ton of money.
She was my inspiration, not that I’ve been super motivated by making money, but more I admired her flexibility, her adventurous and playful spirit. And she made sure I knew when it was almost 10:30 pm (when the gelato shop closed) because I needed another three scoops (ok, I actually only got two, but only because they had run out of coconut and cinnamon). I am inspired by brave women who aren’t afraid to “take a bite out of life.” I told her about the Festival of Devotional Arts and she lit up. She mentioned it’s much easier to be a single woman living in Barcelona than Los Angeles and that Spanish men “love” older women, then she amended that to “appreciate.” I can only imagine how difficult it is to age in a city like Los Angeles. Mmmmmm, she had me thinking….
Suddenly I didn’t want to leave, but the next morning I had to find the train station so I could get to Alcover, Spain. I had given myself plenty of time but hadn’t anticipated waiting in something resembling a post office line at Christmas. Italians know how to do gelato but are just like Americans when it comes to moving people and mail around. I took a number, but it was taking FOREVER. I had already made peace with the fact that I was going to miss my train and would have a two hour wait. When my number was finally called. I was informed that I had been waiting in the WRONG line. I sprinted over in the direction the civil servant pointed. I had exactly two minutes to find the right train. I flew down the stairs and, in a panic, asked a woman in uniform if the train in front of me was correcto (I forgot I wasn’t in Italy anymore). She nodded “si” and I got on the train praying I wouldn’t end up in Timbuktu.
Relieved, but having to pee, I did my best holding it while not moving, sneezing, or laughing, refusing to miss my stop. When I got off the train (I was told someone would meet me) I spotted a groovy looking dude about my age and decided to ask him if he was waiting for a ride to the festival. He was! I learned he was one of the presenters along with a couple of women who showed up and we all crammed into our ride. I had arrived a day early to help out and reasoned it would be a good way to meet people in this foreign landscape.
Up the mountain we bumped and finally landed at the “castle” which looked like an Anton Gaudi creation. Inside, however, it was showing some age. The bedrooms were dormitory style-plain and functional. I was expecting Swan, our leader, to be a little scattered, but I wasn’t expecting him to be the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. He was more than masculine and more than feminine–a beautiful creature and now I understood why he was called Swan. But I’m getting distracted. Was he disorganized or just fluid? He would ask the early bird crew to do a task, but being a visionary, would see it done a different way.
How many people does it take to change a light bulb, how long does it take a group of eight to create a “cozy corner.” Certainly, there is more efficiency in the number one, but maybe this is how you start to build community and how you begin to invest in the experience.
Looking back, short of making the meals and unclogging the toilet, Swan had his beautiful hands in and on everything. Soon I would start learning Swan’s language: like the word “agora” which was the time we gathered as a community to deal with any issue or concerns. The next day the community had swelled to 60 people from all over the world. Swan had lived in “intentional communities” and he worked to be efficient while also allowing every person to feel heard. We started with a one-word list which were mostly housekeeping details, but I could see the potential for this practice especially after Swan would ask “do you feel complete?”
How do you explain “holding space”? How do you build safety and community among strangers? Swan held the secret. But where Swan shined the most was creating rituals. He allowed people to express themselves through “devotion” and the “arts” through carefully crafted experiences. The first night he was running late so we stood in the vestibule like sardines waiting for him to open the doors. To quiet the mob, Swan opened the doors dressed all in black against his luminous white skin. He was strikingly beautiful and ethereal standing silently holding a lit candle.
He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to.
One by one, or two by two people, would see him and be mesmerized into silence. Without words we entered the space mesmerized by the voices of the Gods. It was like being seduced by a warm bath or held in your grandmother’s arms. Yum. The heart began to stir, the music thawed. After walking for a week (15 miles a day one step in front of the next was repetitive, harsh, and painful) THIS was my meditation as the delicate music captivated and we all danced. When it was over, Swan invited us into silence that evening and the next morning. Silence was a relief.
Talking can be an effort, a distraction. It can be adversarial, provocative, and unkind. It can be forgiving and healing and connecting, but what about silence? Silence leads you back to yourself. I woke up the next morning– expectant. After a delicious breakfast, Swan guided us in a breathing exercise and then eye gazing with a partner. I found Victor, or he found me. What a lovely surprise. Together we went on a journey and I found play, connection and then grief. We broke the fast together.
I had arrived feeling a little like a wounded animal finding an outstretched arm reaching for me, but what does that outstretched arm intend? I’m not sure how to talk about it without sounding like a victim, which I do not want to do, but “dick energy” has been trying to dominate me my whole life. And these sorts of events often have the wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing. Am I paranoid? Or experienced? All I know is these sorts of encounters are both deep and superfluous, meaningful, and transitory, healing and potentially harmful.
I still want the dick (is the answer to let go of that desire?) but I can’t withstand the dick domination for another second. And yet I’m dealing with another round of it. I just keep asking the question “what is the lesson,” rather than the old “why me”? I can’t explain at this point in my life why this keeps coming up, but I see a pattern. This is why it is so important to witness how Swan embodies completely the masculine and feminine. He shows it’s possible to be masculine/feminine/ethereal all at the same time. He is the epitome of “divine masculine energy” which seems the only antidote to “dick energy.”
Dick energy is the epitome of privilege. But we have come so far, right? The groovy new age mantra of “thinking positive” isn’t that just another polite way of maintaining the status quo? Where is the room for the shadow? Where is social justice in this formula–if it’s really only about our attitude? You “create your own reality” doesn’t take into consideration any inequity of power. The playing field is not even no matter how much we lie to ourselves (like race, sexual orientation, gender, economics, etc doesn’t play a defining role). I see the paradox between claiming my power and knowing my vulnerability as an older woman. And if I speak out about it then it’s my “negative energy” that is creating the problem. The push back is real.
In the past I’ve been naive and too trusting…. opening up to dick energy too quickly. I’m finally starting to know how to discern better, but often that requires time. Who has time for time? But somehow here, halfway around the world, the only American, I’m starting to feel at home. I’m being invited to open up quickly while keeping my eyes open for the wolf. Our history holds on to us, while simultaneously we have to live in the moment. Got that?
As I begin to thaw the heart opens–but it all surfaces. And it’s not all sweetness and light (that some groovy-yoga-granola types like to pretend). The truth is there is so much trauma and, I believe, why billions are self-medicating themselves because it’s simply too much to bear. Where is the truth between the trauma and the memories of the trauma? This is supposed to matter, because in the end it’s really more the stories we tell ourselves. But the mind is not enough to extricate ourselves from trauma/grief. Healing is way more than correcting our “thinking.” Here we are sensing, listening, touching, feeling, experiencing, dancing, singing, expressing, and connecting, but more than connecting with someone else I’m connecting with myself. Yes, community is important, but I’m the only person who has been with me my whole life. I finally understand what it means to not “give my power away.”
But I’m carrying a secret. My body isn’t well. I had an abnormal pad right before I got on my flight from an unwanted sexual experience from four months ago. I’m also being bullied and threatened by the man who lives upstairs from me. Do I just keep getting the lesson over and over again until I get whatever it is I’m supposed to learn? The universe isn’t forgetful. Or maybe, it’s someone else’s lesson and I’m just an unknown player in THEIR drama. I’m not sure. I listen to older single women, who were married for 30 years, bash men. I get it, they gave their young life to some dude who is now fucking someone their daughter’s age. But I’m trying to go deeper to understand this long history of contempt for women, along with this deeply conflicted desire. How do you break through the dichotomy?
How do you wrap your mind around the paradox of this unquenchable desire with being hated? How do I understand being victimized and powerful simultaneously? I’m still unpacking all this. It’s like the connection with others is critical and dangerous both. The answer: dogs! Dogs are simple. There is no agenda (except belly rubs and food). They don’t ever hate you even when you mess up. They love and are loyal without any lies, manipulation, or pain.
But I’ve digressed, here we humans are trying to connect like dogs… simple and pure. The hugging exercise was a great start. Swan understands boundaries are essential. We complicate (with rules) to try and make it simple. We were instructed to cross our arms over our chest for a “no thank you” (Swan does a hilarious “bro” hug demonstration) and we all understand that talking/hugging/sex can be meaningless, dangerous, or sublime.
Forget sitting crossed legged perfectly still, forget groovy competitive standing on your head yoga, we’re doing hug therapy! It certainly was a lot more pleasant than walking 15 miles a day. But how are my boundaries received in real life? Here when you cross your arms you are met with knowing smiles or sparking eyes, but in real life this is not how my boundaries are always met. They are ignored, argued with, and sometimes violated. Why is the “crazy,” angry woman then a surprise?
Here Swan tries to give everyone a voice. A sacred space where we sing, dance, and make art and music. This is the key to awakening the soul. Swan shares, art is in the service of life. It’s not a performance-there is no divide between the audience and the performers, between active and passive. Here we are to re-discover the art within us. He talks about devotion and encourages us not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. He’s showing us the jewels: rituals, sacred music, chanting, dancing, art making–all are ways to connect with the divine. I’m a believer!
“Devotion is to be expressed. It’s gratitude in action.” I’ve always liked the word devotion (trans-personal sound more about the head then heart) this idea of humbling ourselves to something greater than our egos. When we were asked to place a sacred object on the altar, we didn’t need to explain ourselves (why we brought what we did). We were only asked to place the object on the altar with great reverence.
Here bowing is seen as strength. Here an open heart is welcomed rather than seen as a weakness. To dominate means what exactly? A moment of immortality? A line of Cocaine for the ego? The narcissist thrill? I think about my own need to be right. The validation that I am a worthy human being?
But as I get older, I’m less seen, less validated, while also needing the world less and less (while perhaps needing art, nature, music, and animals more). These are things that move my heart which have nothing to do with the battle of the ego. Being creative means to surrender and what part of the ego wants to surrender? As creators we allow this energy to run through us. Creating something that transforms us in the creative act without expectations or force. Creative spirituality is embodied spirituality. It’s surprising, magical, and unexpected. But it’s impossible to let go unless one feels safe and how do you create safety instantly? If anyone can do it Swan can.
Pain contracts and pleasure/sexual energy can open us. Too often sex is used for ego gratification and physical release, but the heart is completely dismembered from the rest. Embodied means connecting the mind-heart-sex. Each workshop is a jewel to explore. I decided to attend David’s workshop on Tantra expecting or hoping at least to find momentary connection. Instead, I’m sitting outside cold on a hard rock and feeling lectured at. I get the presenter has something to transmit, but he doesn’t have space to explore, because he’s the teacher and we are the pupils. “Pleasure can never be satisfied because once you get the object of desire you get bored.”
There is no such thing as contentment? I want to ask, but somehow it feels like too much work. It takes energy to go against the grain. Perhaps that pursuit is a young person’s sport, because as you age you have to adapt. I’m sure a lot of 75-year-old men would be really content with just a hard on. Okay, I understand what we’re talking about is spiritual hunger. There are about 30 different people to ask, “how do you satisfy your spiritual hunger,” but he ignores this inquiry when prompted.
I push back a little, but is it really worth it? He’s got his views. Cool. I guess it’s my reaction to another man telling me what I need to think. Maybe I’m wrong and it’s an invitation, but I feel more like if I want to get an “A” then I know the correct answer. But I don’t care about getting an A anymore. I’m open to hearing other people’s views/experiences/ideas, but I finally understand that MY experience is, well, mine. I can entertain other people and their views or expertise, but no one has lived with me my whole life other than myself. The validation drug has finally worn off.
Sometimes I don’t do something I want to do (like should I join the cozy corner?) and vulnerability/fear is still there, but it’s less and less about my need for validation from others. Actually, it’s not really about that it’s more just wanting touch and a connection, but at what price? I can’t do “corrupted touch” anymore. I would rather sit out. Is it worth the risk, is really the question. As I became more open, I found myself wanting to connect with men, but most of them (yes, even here) wanted to connect with youth. I see it. I feel it. And I’m tired of it. It reminds me of when I was young and didn’t want “the male gaze,” but there was nothing I could do about it. Just like now, being “old” there is nothing I can do about being invisible. I get it, aging IS contagious.
Leonard Cohen reassures I will become “cute” again. But it’s like sexuality is ONLY for the young. Who is my role-model for “aging sexy.” It’s a complete oxymoron. I remind myself to just “make love” to myself. I do my best to just swirling in my own little universe. I come out from time to time to look around (check out the cozy corner) but singing and dancing and making art becomes almost as fulfilling as a lover’s touch.
One of the highlights of the weekend was the “human sculpture” experience. We were instructed to wear all white (on our list of things to bring) and mostly people complied. What is the music that we are listening to? We were told to make pods of three (was this the exercise where we were asked if we were okay with the gender composition of our pod after allowing the universe to decide randomly who we would be paired with… I’m relieved the selection wasn’t done by popularity contest!). Swan asks if we are comfortable with our pod composition. A few groups of women prefer to remain without the dick energy and the men shift to a new group.
Swan asks us to close our eyes and for a volunteer from our pods of three. I raise my hand. I misunderstand the instruction, but eventually get that I’m the sculptor and the woman to my left and right are my subjects, my clay. I bring them to the center of our “canvas” and “mold” them into the position I want, where they are instructed to hold perfectly still. They are blindfolded, but I can see the entire installation. I come back and sit down still. And suddenly I’m overcome with the beauty of it all. At that moment I realize life is so profoundly beautiful and so intensely painful and that we all have to manage this paradox. I’m overwhelmed by it all.
When it’s my turn to be the “clay” this time we are instructed to MOVE and to connect with the other “objects.” With blindfolds on, the collective begins to move and discover. At first it feels so deeply nourishing and nurturing. But at some point, it shifts and I feel a quiet frenzy. I question my own “reading” of the situation, but then I feel the dick. The energy can’t stand still, but why does it always have to gravitate to the dick? Do we not want to bathe in womb energy? Maybe it’s harmless to just feel the shift and enjoy it while it lasted, but somehow it feels unwelcome, like it has in the past, this is NOT a conversation, a dialogue, a meeting of the minds, a sweet collaboration, no, this is quiet domination and my only option is to disengage. Everything changes, remember?
Later during our community gathering, Swan asked about the exercise and instructed us to close our eyes and raise our hands if we felt “unsafe.” I debated about raising my hand, because “unsafe” wasn’t the correct word, but I felt “uncomfortable.” I wasn’t sure what to do so later I asked about it. He asked me how I handled the situation and I told him I just left. Was I okay with the resolution, he asked? Yes, for the most part I was. He also felt the shift, too, and I can’t remember the last time a man actually validated my experience. I don’t want to be patronized, but I do want to feel the connection from another human being that I’m not alone or “crazy.” It helps me trust myself more because in the past my “intuition” was contradicted.
Another highlight of the workshop was meeting with a young woman, a participant, who was offered her gifts during a break. For some reason it ended up just being the two of us, but it was perfect. We created art together with our eyes closed and alternated between using the dominant and non-dominant hand. We would even work on each other’s art. It really highlighted the experience of sharing and creating without an end goal in mind. There was no “controlling” the outcome, no performing, no agenda. We worked with music allowing the music to move us internally and externally. Towards the end we found words that were floating in our brains and then wrote them on the “art.” Seeing the words we created a “story” from the chosen words. It was a wonderfully organic and moving experience. Somehow my age came up and she shared her delight in having me there. She wishes her mother would be more open like me. This exchange was healing for both of us.
Looking back what strikes me most is being in the “energy” of an event like this and how critical the leadership is. Swam is a master at creating a beautiful, stirring, imaginative space ripe for exploration and connection. Touch, creativity, witness, reverence, dance, making music and art, is everything the soul is seeking, actually starving for. I was nourished and grateful for the experience. I am aware I need regular “meals” and I also need to know how to feed myself. Age discrimination is VERY real. I can see why people become less and less willing to take the risk. We don’t bounce back the way we used to. Hopefully, I also have a larger capacity to handle the paradox of it all.
I was able to catch a ride back to Barcelona with some of my fellow comrades for five euros. I did have a sweet interaction with one of the young crew while riding the train back to my hotel. By this point, I was spent and I needed a little hand holding. Finally, back at the hotel all was quiet. One more night and then I was off for a seven-day cruise on the English Cunard Cruise Line. I was really looking forward to tea and scones. After a physically challenging week and a week of exploration, I was looking forward to doing nothing. I was starting to get a little homesick and was really missing my crazy dog, but I gently reminded myself people would kill to have my life. After working for so many, many years I was starting to unwind and realize there is a season for everything and maybe this was the season to sit on my ass.
How long did that last you might wonder? Not long. I ended up meeting four other single people on a cruise ship. It was an entirely new world. I picked the cruise because it was known to have dancing, but they forgot to say that everyone attending the dance class would be over 70 and there would be NO single dancers. What a disappointment. Any other dance classes I’ve taken we rotate partners, but not here. The couples had spent 30, 40 or 50 years together and they weren’t letting go of each other. I had expected to just enjoy (mostly) my time alone, but ended up hanging out with a Welsh woman, a “Town Crier” who gave the sweetest kisses, a hot Puerto Rican firecracker taking a break from her husband and three kids, and a sweet Chinese gentleman. We had a blast. Who knew? We’re actually hoping to have a little reunion next year. Funny, not one word from anyone from the workshop, but that’s okay. Life flows the way it needs to.
Finally, my friend just asked me about “pussy energy?” He’s right. I’m so focused on the dick energy that I forget about the pussy. That’s a problem. Maybe the antidote to “dick energy is not only “divine masculine energy,” but also pussy energy. I’m gonna have to ponder that and get back to you.