by MICHEL FRIEDMAN
In an earlier blog, Kailee Jordan proposes that at a time like this, where it’s easy to be overwhelmed by emotion, fear, anxiety, insecurity – “self-care, that emphasizes connection and collectivity” is critical. In this blog, I share some thoughts from an experience that talks directly to Kailee’s suggestion. It is about cultivating cross (African) continental solidarity that has been led by South African Gender at Work Associates. It emerged quite spontaneously – without any plans, log-frames or formulae.
“I felt extremely peaceful and beautiful tranquility. Thanks all”
“Today I felt my chest opening. I even got my voice back”
“Calm and relaxed. I did not feel alone and isolated, I connected with the other people in the circle”
“You are helping me deal with my fear”
“At first my shoulder felt really heavy. Later it started to ease.”
“Connected so much with courage and who I really am”
“I felt tearful and tired today. Focusing on my umbilical cord helped me feel connected to everyone and at peace”
These are typical comments people share after our fifteen minutes of sitting together practicing a simple finger-holding and breathing meditation at the same time every night. The idea was born out of a desire to respond in the moment to the chaos, panic, uncertainty being brought sharply into focus by COVID-19.
Since late 2019, a few Gender at Work facilitators and I had been planning to create a two-day learning space with our Letsema ( a Gender at Work and Labour Research Service initiative) colleagues. We’d wanted to focus on how to respond creatively to trauma and how to strengthen people’s resilience and capacity for caring for themselves and others. About one month before formal lockdown started, when I was about to purchase an air ticket, our friend and colleague in Delhi, Kalyani, strongly recommended we cancel the workshop. “Proceed with abundant caution”. Reluctantly we listened, to what with hindsight has proven to be wise counsel. Together with our Letsema colleagues, we decided it was safer to be cautious.
Somewhat frustrated and definitely disappointed, I started to wonder what I could do instead. In quite a spontaneous and unplanned way, my colleague Nina and I agreed to do something simple that everyone could have access to on their phones. I chose to record a version of a short fingerhold and breathing meditation that our Letsema colleagues had already been exposed to. Each evening, Nina sends out a message reminding people. We listen to the audio on our own at home, but all together, across time and space. We then have a short ‘open line’ on the WhatsApp chat function where people can share their thoughts, feelings, experiences.
At first, our idea was to offer alternative support to one particular group of people that knew us (Letsema), that we had worked with and that had some experience of finger-holding. The official South Africa lockdown was announced on the 23rd of March and began by the midnight of the 26th. By then we had already been going for 6 nights. Over time, the group has grown including participants we’ve worked with from all parts of the continent – Southern, Eastern, and Western Africa. There are roughly 60 members and whoever wants to join in each night does so. Some listen to the audio themselves when they can.
Helping ourselves in order to support others
It is well known now that fear weakens the immune system. So, by transmuting anxiety and fear, the finger-holding helps us strengthen our immune systems.
It helps to cultivate our capacity to be self -reflective, aware of what is going on in our bodies, hearts/feelings, and minds. We learn to listen to ourselves and what our bodies are telling us.
In taking a moment to pause it helps us to be a little less reactive, to find some clarity that can help us be more response-able in the face of strong emotions.
By doing it at the same time every day, like a ritual, we create a rhythm and bring a moment of soothing comfort to what can otherwise, feel out of control.
By doing it with a group of colleagues, comrades, and friends we strengthen our connection and solidarity. We have group members representing a wide diversity of identities and class positions. Besides having participants across the continent, we have G@W facilitators, people of varying ‘races’, classes, genders, sexual orientation, religion. Teachers, domestic workers, educationists, feminist and unemployed activists, health-care workers, trade unionists. Although our differing access to material resources, to some extent definitely shapes our particular ‘COVID-19 realities’, we also recognise that we all share similar fears, anxieties and a desire to build solidarity across both our divides and our similarities.
We each practice in our own houses, those who are willing to have a public face have shared photos to create a virtual and visual participant circle. Towards the end, we share the benefit of the session with each other, visualising all of us as well, healthy and strong. In caring for ourselves, we are also caring for each other. In our own way, we resist, challenge and even subvert the idea of physical distancing. We sustain a sense of ‘claiming agency’ in the face of hopelessness. Moreover, touch is central to what it means to be human. During COVID-19 we’re becoming scared of “touch”. This is a moment in the day when we can safely reconnect with how important touch is to us, to our sense of comfort and wellbeing.
When we focus our healing intention also to include others – like health workers, those who are on the frontline, those who are not able to be safely quarantined – we also transform our worry and anxiety into positive energy.
By sharing our reflections each day, we notice that our feelings, our state of mind changes. It’s never permanent. One day we can focus more easily and become calm. Another day it is more difficult.
We’re not alone.
This happens to all of us.
This shows us how the uncertainty we’re all feeling in such an intense way at this time of COVID-19, is actually a part of life. Life is uncertain. Under “normal” conditions we can’t predict and don’t know when we will get sick, when we will die. We can’t control many aspects of daily life. These ‘ordinary impermanent’ realities are very heightened at a time of crisis but they are not actually foreign to us. Doing this regularly, with the same group at the same time every day we are strengthening our capacity to be with such impermanence.
We get overwhelmed with our stress, worry, anxiety, fear, trauma. Trying to contain this ourselves is like using a small glass to catch the water from a litre bottle. By building groups of solidarity like we are, with our evening ritual, is like expanding our bowl – building it wider – to help us ‘catch’ and contain the overwhelming emotions that threaten to flood us. We can’t do this alone – we need to do it together. That is what will strengthen our resilience. For us, it demonstrates one aspect of feminist activism in action.
Michel Friedman is a Senior Associate Gender at Work, and lives in Cape Town, South Africa. She’d like to thank everyone participating in the group for their commitment, energy, solidarity and care. A special thanks to Nina for holding all the logistics.