Erica’s in a rectangular room with one-hundred and four strangers–people sitting in a semicircle, some in chairs, some standing against the walls, all facing Sobonfu Some, “keeper of the rituals” of African spirituality, traveling the world on a healing mission. Sobonfu talks for a few hours and people ask questions, discussing grief and fear and abuse and loss and pain and where it comes from. Erica explains this in a letter, and she is getting ready for a grief ritual, a “transformative experience” she writes, and I am instantly sucked in.
Three altars were set up, she wrote, the grief altar with a black cloth, to the left of that is the ancestor/strength altar with red cloth, and to the right, in blue, is the forgiveness altar.
I imagine her sitting there during Sobonfu’s talk, her head cocked to the side in a deep focus and secret pain she’s about to ’hare with strangers–I know her private bravery. I think of the letter she wrote me years back about her journeys through Nepal and Europe, basically backpacking and doing housework for boarding. She had saved up, left her job, and took a plane to Hawaii where she met Matt. They traveled together, scraping by on a journey across the east, when she had a breakdown and locked herself in a bathroom for nearly a week in……..
In 1996 you would have found us jumping onto moving trains together near Lake Superior, back when trains still ran around the quieter parts of town and on the outskirts. We’d take our bikes and get lost from dawn until dusk, walkman speakers wrapped around my handlebars playing Green Onions. We’d found mountains of sands before the cemetery out on Sanborn Avenue on the edge of town, and we’d climb up to the top and leap off, rolling and tumbling down. The ridges looked like ancient, carved faces, and in middle school that’s what our essays and poems were about, huddled together in the cold little room of our Catholic School, in a class of thirteen, reading The Red Pony and writing. We wore Airwalks and chucks, cut-offs and Nirvana tees. We’d roller-blade before school to the grand hotel on the lake front and break into the pool and swim on hot summer mornings, and then head for school. We followed the tracks once out past the Bay City Creek and rolling countryside spread out before us, rolling with a horizon of pines. It began to sprinkle and then, to our amazement, the largest rainbow we’d ever seen arched over us from behind us, nearly over us, and then into the horizon. We looked at each other and just knew–this was magic. We did our handshake and said “Philly,” as w“ always”did. We talked about our dreams, about the unknown, about music and philosophizing on our lives. Sometimes we just walked and sang “California Dreaming” in two-part harmony.
She never said much about her mother and her own pain and confusion. I never told her I was sexually abused and getting hit and mistreated at home. It was like, when we were together, it was paradise–a real kind. We were more ourselves and we were safe. Safety was a thing I’d never known, ’nd to have it just blocks away changed me. I grew braver. Damn near fearless. We both did. And yet I wonder, if only we’d confided in e’ch other what was happening in our hearts and scaring us, maybe none of the bad would have happened. Maybe I wouldn’t have broken h’r heart and humiliated her in front of our friends over a guy, leaving town with one of her best friends to a bigger city. Maybe, if she’d only known my’fear and insecurity of men, my utter loneliness in my pain, and her in hers, maybe things would be different. Yet I feel they’re meant to be ’his way, as fucked up and bittersweet as it is. My connection to her was strong, stronger than any I’d ever known. ’ knew, even then, she’d always be an important part of my life, a spirit I would judge everyone else’s by to check their worthiness.
We didn’t speak for years’ I got wasted and lost in a city; my abusive stepfather disappeared; my real father, an alcoholic, died on the barroom floor. I changed. I was numbing. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder was like an engine beginning to hum, and I was Bipolar. I lost myself in pills and alcohol and whatever drugs I could find, tripping on electric flowers and naked shoulders.
When my father died, I had to move back to my hometown, having multiple panic attacks and one psychotic breakthrough. I found myself on my mother’s bathroom floor, alone, a screaming in my head and suddenly there was no God and no point and I was going to die. I wanted to die.
I trudged through the next few years, alone as ever. I was half of myself without that other soul to bare my soul to. I needed her even when I’d thought I’d forgotten about her’ I began to learn I had to find that in myself–she somehow taught me that.
Years of not-so-effective therapy went by. I had a beautiful daughter who filled a large part of the hole in my chest. But when my daughter reached the age I was when I was molested by my stepfather, I lost my sanity. I ended up in the mental hospital four times, I was having panic attacks and psychotic breakthroughs every day. I was hearing a little girl crying. I couldn’t look at my daughter. ’I couldn’t touch my fiance. I w’s having flashbacks of rubber in my mouth, blood on my face, and I couldn’t be touched. I’d ring the nurses throughout the night, certain my breath would quit me, too. On the payphone in the common room of the ward, my sister told me that she told Erica what was going on–that all the abuse and illnesses were coming out –and Erica told her to tell me that she’s with me. I could alm’st hear her say it “Tell her I’m with her,”“and at nig’t, alone an” crying on my cot in my room, I’d listen to her say it ’ver and over until I fell asleep, tell her I’m with her, tell her I’’ with her.
Within a s’all amount of time, I lost my job, my house, my fiance, my friends (the few I had), and my mind. I came to when I quit taking a heavy sedative, and found myself in low-income housing, severely overweight and wanting to die–only the flashbacks had stopped, so I knew I’d survive–I’d survived t’e worst. An’ a small tiny light hadn’t been extinguished, even though I lost all faith in God, believing we were just matter in space, amoebic entities merely causing and effecting, love a construct. I’d like to think it was love from someone I’d tried to push away and ’ill off, someone who still saw something in me–something worth loving. And if she could love me, maybe I could take a better look at myself.
They had to take items they’d brought to the grief altar.’ Erica took old journals full of “pain, and on them I put my fear, anger, loneliness, isolation, judgment, and pain,” and she tied them in a bundle and met back at the grief altar after a period of being alone. Everyone placed their bundles on the grief altar and Sobonfu said an African chant over them and no one was allowed any closer than two feet for the rest of the ritual. They gathered and played drums and shakers in a line, facing the grief altar.
“Hey la la ku li a,” and when yo“ feel it, the grieve” setting in, you go the altar and let it all out–weeping, screaming, growling–all that grief coming out from the gut. There’s no judgment, it’s safe, Erica wrote. And for each person that is ready and walks to the altar to grieve, someone must follow and be there for them however seems necessary. “On the second day,” she wrote, “I held a complete stranger, my arms wrapped around her and my head on her back as she shook and wept. It was an incredible feeling to do that for another human being.”
They could go to the ancestor”altar and forgiveness altar but they weren’t allowed to grieve there, they w’re places for meditation and strength. It went on for hours, people in and out and about. The whole time the drumming and chanting faintly in the background.
After about the second paragraph into the letter I was crying. Why? Because I was so desperate to be a part of something so profound and spiritual. I was so desperate for a place to grieve and not be alone. And then her last paragraph:
“I’m telling you about this because I brought only a handful of people in with me to this ritual all for different reasons. My parents, my grandparents, a woman who was there for me in a very hard time in my life, my cat Sandy, and You. I actually brought in an item to represent you and I told you that nothing that happened to you is your fault. I asked for your forgiveness in not seeing what was happening and not being able to stop it. I asked for both of us (and my parents) to have strength to forgive the people that have caused us pain, and to forgive the people that caused them pain.”
Through her letter, through her somehow, I began to grieve for the first time.