The day after Reggae Night, just past 4 pm – cool enough now for me to feel comfortable taking a long walk under the equatorial sun, Jahfar and I headed from his shop on the beach to the main road out of Kokrobite. As he led me through the more local part of the village, he informed me that Ernest had actually shown up at the beach outside Big Milly’s the night before, after I had left, and that he had told Ernest about our intention to pay him a visit today. This seemed like excellent news, as I figured it would greatly increase our chances of finding him at home.
Jahfar was not at all bad company, and we had a pleasant walk out towards AAMA (the now defunct hotel/drum and dance school that Koro and I had lived near). Jahfar greeted at least half the people we passed along our way up the main road, all of whom were excited to see him, all eager to talk with him. I got the impression not only that he was a good guy, but also that he didn’t get out – meaning away from his little shop and the beach scene – often enough.
I felt a tinge of disappointment when eventually we passed the middle road across from AAMA, the one I was fairly certain had been the road leading out to the path to the shack. When we turned up the next road, the last one across from AAMA – the paved road of which I had absolutely no memory, which, when exploring the area, I had been certain was not our road, Jahfar turned to me with a confident smile, searching my face for recognition. “Maybe this seems familiar…?” he prompted me. I smiled weakly and could only offer an accommodating, “Umm…,” as I meanwhile thought that Ernest must be living somewhere else now, that he must have wound up buying a different piece of land.
We walked a while up this paved road, pausing at one point to break a couple twigs off one of the many young Neem trees lining the road, to use for cleaning our teeth – this was the traditional Ghanaian substitute for a toothbrush. The strong, bitter taste of the Neem, my herbal line of defense against malaria, always brought back bad memories – of more critical malarial times, but I enjoyed using it anyway, knowing that it was good for me. As we walked on, both of us engaged with our twigs, Jahfar occasionally made suggestions of things I might like to do – with himself as my guide, of course. Perhaps I would like to go for a swim in the pool at the hotel we now passed (looking much misplaced) on our left? Or climb up the little mountain stretching above it, to get a view of all of Kokrobite and its surrounding area? …Poor Jahfar. I had very little interest in doing much of anything outside of my simple agenda for this trip – revisiting the places I knew before, feeling what I felt, and writing. I also didn’t want to get too involved with him because I knew he had to have some sort of motive behind wanting to spend more time with me, and it was becoming clear that that motive (refreshingly at least not a pseudo-romantic one) was to do business; he wanted to help me do whatever kind of business might interest me, and I knew that in this regard he was dealing with the wrong person. He was also keen to help me with anything else with which I might possibly need help, and I was far too independent here to take interest in any of that. But Jahfar graciously accepted all of my obliging but noncommittal smiles, as well as my direct rejections of his numerous offers. And now, finally, he motioned to a two-story house placed just beside the road, with a big red jeep of some sort parked directly in front of it.
I had never spent much time with Ernest, and I didn’t have much of a memory as to what he had looked like, other than the fact that he was tall. When Jahfar presented me to the man standing on the porch of the house, I did not recognize that this was Ernest, at all, and he did not recognize me; and as we stood before each other, both smiling and unsure, I began to wonder if perhaps this was a whole different Ernest and nothing would come of this trip. But when it was clear to all that no recognition was coming (Jahfar now looking as if he was beginning to wonder what the heck was going on), I tentatively asked, “Did you used to have a friend named Koro?”
Now Ernest’s mouth dropped, and he seemed to drop, and suddenly, wow – realization dawned. Yes, this was the same Ernest all right.
After astonishment and greetings and the laughter of relief that Jahfar had indeed connected the right people, I eventually asked, “But this isn’t the same land I lived on, is it?”
“Yes, yes, it is the same land!” Ernest assured me, in an excited but soft-spoken manner; and immediately he led me along the wraparound porch and out back to the land. Jahfar stayed behind with another young man who was there, who had greeted us with such an enormous and confident smile, and such overflowing friendliness, that I had wondered if he was someone I was supposed to have known as well.
Ernest was nothing but kind to me. He seemed… softer now than how I remembered him, and also just so much older. He took his time showing me all around the land, stayed with me as I slowly, piece by piece, took it all in. There were so many more trees now, and he told me about several of them – what had been planted when, etc. The ones I recognized from before – my good friends the Neem, whose leaves had kept me malaria-free for so long, and the beautiful Flamboyant, my favorite climbing tree – were huge, especially the Neem, its lowest branches now way above my head. “I used to hang my laundry on this tree,” I told Ernest; “back then it was all within reach.” I barely recognized the Flamboyant, now overshadowed by Ernest’s big house, which was built just beside it, throwing off my perspective. Once Ernest had confirmed that this tree had been here before and I could see that it was indeed the same tree I had known and loved, I tried to imagine how I had so easily gotten into it, back when all of its limbs were so much lower to the ground. This Flamboyant had not only been my favorite climbing tree, but its uppermost limbs had also been my favorite place for doing my eye exercises. Perched amongst the highest branches, even back then I could see the ocean.
I looked up at our little mountain-hill, the sun now approaching it, as I had seen it do so many times, just around the time I would be preparing our dinner. The sun was my timepiece when I lived here, and its position relative to that giant hill (which we always thought of as a mountain) was what I checked on the most, right around this point in the day, as it would tell me how much daylight I had left within which to complete whatever tasks I had going on, before we would be plunged into darkness, with only a candle to perhaps eat or read by. Halfway up the little mountain stood the white edifice that had been under construction when I was here, from which Koro had gathered scraps of wood that he and BraSibi and one other friend used to completely reconstruct the shack in a more waterproof manner before the rainy season began. I had been looking at these reference points – the little “mountain” and that huge white structure astride it – while making my last exploration of the area, trying to place the shack in relation to them; and looking at all of it now, from this perspective, right here, it all finally just looked so perfectly placed.
Yes, this was indeed where I had lived. In a way it was all changed, and in another way, it – the site – was just as I remembered it.
When I told Ernest about trying to find the site a few days before, and not at all thinking it was off of this road, he told me it wasn’t this road, because this road did not exist back then! “We put this road in when we built the house,” he explained, and now I could see why his house was placed just beside the road, not at all set back – when it was built, it was probably the only house out here, this new road like one long private driveway. “Koro used to enter from the next road over,” Ernest said; “there was a path.” Yes, part of the reason why the site looked so different now was due to the elimination of that long path – which had led to the shack from the current middle road across from AAMA, as I had thought.
All that remained of the shack was the foundation, a small rectangular perimeter of cement – that and the square hole in the ground inside of it, which Koro had called “the fridge.” The “fridge” was a space underground into which you could lower a basket of food tied to a rope, to keep it cool – though I think perhaps there was supposed to be some other element to it, like that the bottom was supposed to be filled with sand and ocean water(?), which, of course, never happened. Koro had considered this a great technology, but to me it never made much sense – as, in reality, it seemed to just be a place for insects and rodents to settle. It was funny to now see this as one of the only traces of the shack’s existence. There had been a cement floor, but that was now completely gone. What was amazing, though, was to see how very small the shack had been – so much smaller than I remembered it. Yes, in my memory it was small, but... bigger than that! It looked so tiny now.
It was nice to be there, but, of course, I really just wanted to be alone – with the land, the trees, the site, my memories… And I wasn’t – Ernest stayed with me, and we chatted off and on, quietly, slowly. We took our time, looking at everything, walking all around, and as I took it all in, I remembered to take some pictures, in my mind hearing countless friends telling me to. I kept harboring a faint hope that Ernest would leave me alone out there for a while, so I could just BE, ALONE, THERE, as I so often was before; but he did not, and for whatever reason – perhaps just not wanting to seem impolite within this culture of extreme hospitality, I did not feel comfortable asking him for some time alone. I wasn’t about to hurry through my visit either, though, and Ernest did not seem to mind the long stretches of silence. I don’t think I had ever had a single conversation alone with Ernest before, just the two of us, and I had little to say to him.
Having traversed the property, once again we stood near the back of the big house that he and his Swiss wife had built, a beautiful structure, standing apart from all the cement houses around the area through its incorporation of wood and stone. After he had told me about it in the same steady, quiet way in which he had told me about the land – offering a few details about its construction, the type of roof it had, the solar panels on the roof, etc., I finally thought to ask Ernest about BraSibi. “Yes, Assibi is still living around here, too,” he said, to my surprise. And after a little more time had gone by – a little more looking and quiet intermittent chatting and trying to stretch out these precious moments touring my old home, I asked how I could find him. “Ok, let’s go then,” Ernest said with a soft smile, and he began to walk leisurely towards the stairs leading to the porch. I followed behind as slowly as I reasonably could, trying to gather myself, or ready myself, my emotional body meanwhile bouncing around as if looking for another option besides following him – BraSibi??? Now??? Here and now – BraSibi?!?! And not only that, but also suddenly back to this other character Jahfar – whom I had actually told nothing concerning how I knew Ernest or why I wanted to visit him, and, too, here was that other young man who now, again, was greeting me with the utmost hospitality, and also the toddler who had been here when we arrived, who was now on Jahfar’s lap… all of these people… all just a slightly overwhelming shift in energy to suddenly have to interact again… and back to movement… already leaving the land… and really?!?! I was about to see BraSibi?!?!
BraSibi, Koro’s closest friend around Kokrobite, was the one who had been the night watchman at AAMA. He was the witness at our City Hall wedding, and he was the one who had cared for me when I fell sick, with my third round of malaria, during my last, post-Koro trip. BraSibi was the one person who had been there for us, to help with every possible thing with which we ever needed help. He was the only person I had thought I might look for during this trip – but then had no way to since AAMA had shut down, the only person from my life before that I really cared to see. …I had hoped to see the site during this long-awaited trip to Ghana, but I never expected to see BraSibi…
I planned to make my next visit out to AAMA and near the old site on Sunday, four days after my thorough exploration of the area. The night before, Saturday night, was Reggae Night at Big Milly’s, the old guesthouse; and for once I decided to go out at night, both to check it out and to hopefully ask after Ernest, who had owned the land on which Koro and I had lived.
Setting out from the house, I prepared myself to pass through a street full of men whose unwanted attentions were generally amplified at night, made all the worse by the cover of darkness and the increased presence of alcohol; and as I started determinedly down the dirt road, I put out an extra-strength version of my usual “not interested” vibe. (Sometimes the vibe worked, sometimes it didn’t…) Thankfully, the only person who called out to me now, as I neared the guesthouse, was the young ringleader of the group of boys, maybe around ten or eleven years old, for whom I often bought fruit when I made a stop at the fruit stand that was down this way. By now they knew my usual patterns, and so the whole gang looked at me in confusion as I passed by, a few of them turning their hands up as if to say, “What are you doing? Out so late? And no fruit???” I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head and continued on to the gate to Big Milly’s property, where I had to pay a small fee before being let inside.
Finding a nice spot to stop and survey my surroundings, I took in the scene. The DJ on the stage was playing music that did not interest me, and no one was dancing yet. (I had known when I left the house around 9 that it was probably still too early for the “party,” but I had waited as long as I could – before losing any desire to go out.) The first thing I had noticed upon walking in were a few pool tables set up near the gate, and this was a bit of an interest – it had been years since I had played. But looking at all the men currently playing, I let go of the idea when I didn’t see anyone I felt I wanted to join. A lot of people were gathered at the bar – never my place. And as the restaurant fairly full of diners also did not draw me… before I knew it, having found Reggae Night itself predictably boring for me, I felt myself heading straight for the beach.
But stepping through the gate opposite the one through which I had entered the yard, this suddenly seemed a bad idea, as I was now right in the midst of dozens of men out there on the beach. I had been reluctant to go to Reggae Night at all because I was dreading dealing with all the men who had been trying to talk to me on the street earlier that day – all telling me they would see me at Reggae Night… Well, what I had found time and again in Ghana was that, without an escort, the only way to keep men from trying to talk to you is to talk to one of them; and in this regard, I lucked out. The first Ras who called me over, I soon found, was not at all a bad sort.
Sitting on a bench beside him and a couple of his friends, talking about this and that, having learned that he was from the Ashanti region (and typically very proud of his Ashanti heritage), was a couple years younger than myself, had been here in Kokrobite a handful of years, had a small shop here on the beach and was all about doing business – ever since he first went out on the streets of his hometown selling small items as a kid (any cross-cultural business idea I might have, he said, he was eager to help me get started)… and having shared with him that I had lived around here eighteen years before… I eventually asked whether he knew Ernest – “an older Rasta,” I said, “who’s been around here for a very long time.”
I didn’t expect the first person with whom I spoke to know him, but still I was a little disappointed when he said he did not – thinking that this meant I would have to find someone else to ask. But after a minute or two, he asked if Ernest was tall or short, and when I said he was quite tall, it came to him – “Ah, yes! Ernest – he is living with a woman from Europe…” And then he told me, smiling, not only that he did indeed know who Ernest was, but also that… he had been to his house! Meaning that he could lead me to him! “He lives way down the road out of Kokrobite, maybe a twenty-minute walk,” he said.
“Out by AAMA, the old run-down hotel?” I ventured.
“Yes, very near there. We can go there,” he offered excitedly, “ – whenever you like.”
Eureka. “Can we go tomorrow?”
After making our plan for the following day, I surprised myself and stayed out longer, enjoying the view of the full moon and the ocean, while talking about nothing in particular with my new acquaintance, Jahfar. And when finally I stood up and said that I was going to leave, I was exceedingly pleased that Jahfar neither protested nor asked me for my phone number nor tried to walk me home. I had him show me where his shop was, told him I’d come by around 4 pm (by which time the weather would have cooled), and that was that. In this setting… this truly felt like a small miracle.
Though by now the party was going a bit stronger, as I passed back through the yard around 11 pm, with a live band now on stage (playing some rather uninspired reggae covers) and some (uninspiring) dancing going on, the scene inside Big Milly’s still held no interest for me, and after a moment of taking it in, I continued on through the street-side gate opposite the beach. Delighted to find myself on a blissfully empty road – such a rarity, I walked back to my home at the AirBnB feeling really good. Really… in the flow. With it – with the Divine Flow. Conscious of it.
He will take me to Ernest tomorrow… And I only had to talk to one guy! The Universe had brought me directly to the right person…
Back at the AirBnB, after a quick shower, I got back to my journal as I went through my night-time stretching routine on the floor. Do I even want to see Ernest? I now asked myself. Ernest and I had never been friends, by any means, and I reminded myself now how I had felt about him – while I had not known him at all well, I had always gotten the impression that there was something a bit shady about him, something a bit untrustworthy. …But he knew Koro, I told myself. And it could be our site he’s living on. And that is what I want to see…
The night after my thorough exploration of my old “neighborhood,” as I was lying in my little one-person tent (easy mosquito netting) on the floor, unable to sleep for the thumping bass blasting through my earplugs, I found myself suddenly saying aloud, “Koro, I’m here. Where are you?” I had always had this sense, though much more strongly early on in the first few years after he passed, that Koro wanted me to come back to Africa, to somewhere in Africa. But now that I was finally here… it was striking how I really had not been feeling Koro here. And now that this question had been aired – not even as words on the page or a thought in my head but audibly – the sound of my voice coming as a shock, the immediate response that surfaced in my mind was… Koro has moved on.
Well, as there was no sleep in sight (and by now this was really becoming an irritating issue for me – all the late-night, loud recorded music preventing me from being able to sleep), I switched on my handy solar reading lamp, returned the pen beside it to my hand, and, as I so often did, I took my journal from its night-time spot right above my head and set it back to use…
Koro has moved on. Yes, now that I was back, now that I had answered his call to return, I could feel how… freed he was. But also… he was me, and I was him – we were One. Koro had always been a reflection of myself – and at the best of times, my Self – that much was always clear. We were there together, first and foremost, to allow the other to come to know the Divine more – more “up close and personal,” to come closer to the Divine One than either of us had ever been before, or become closer with the Divine One; and serving as a reflection for each other had been one piece of our magic puzzle, one aspect of this revelation of the One that was unfolding in so many ways. …I had long been aware that the idea, the feeling, of him calling me back to Africa – that was the Divine calling me back, my Inner Voice calling – guiding me along my own, divinely-inspired Path. It was Koro, it was the Divine, and it was me – all the same. ...And feeling now how Koro has moved on, how freed he was… I felt how freed I was.
Koro has moved on. I put it down on the page, where all things solidified for me. And now it is officially time for me to move on as well, I continued.
Koro is satisfied. I am satisfied. And that divine element that is both beyond our individual selves as well as living within us as our true Self… that One is satisfied, too.
…Africa is a big place, I went on. And there is so much to explore. Ghana felt like just the beginning, “the tip of ice,” as Koro would put it – and not only because I was on my way to Guinea, but also because lately I had so strongly been feeling Mali coming in my distant future (very distant future), and I was beginning to have an interest in exploring some other parts of Africa where opportunities were arising as well – Egypt, Morocco, etc. Go deeper, my hand was now scrawling on the page…
I hustled up the main road out of Kokrobite, headed straight for those three roads across from AAMA, the Academy of African Music and Arts. (AAMA was the old hotel that I had already found in ruins on my first brief trip to the area where I used to live.) It was the day after my visit to Big Milly’s, the guesthouse that we used to call Wendy's Place, where I had learned that Ernest, the man who had owned the land on which Koro and I had lived, was still living somewhere in this area. One of those three roads across from AAMA had led to that land, to my home at the shack; and I was ready to go deeper into my old “neighborhood.”
Although I was pretty sure ours had been the middle road, I turned up the closest road first, across from the near end of AAMA’s property – both because I wanted to explore all possibilities and also because I wanted to avoid being stopped again by that same young Rasta with the shop or home or whatever it was at the start of the middle road. I soon felt quite certain that this first road was indeed not the correct road, but I continued up it anyway, not only just to make sure, but simply because it now felt so pleasant to walk along a thin dirt road with no traffic. With so many cars and motorcycles going by on the main road now, there was so much dust and exhaust that, for me, it really felt disgusting out there.
This much quieter road was lined on either side by house after house, mostly big cement structures, some extremely nice, many only half-built, and most looking empty, at least at the moment. Perhaps they’re weekend homes? I wondered. Getaways from Accra? It was shocking to see how very many houses there were now, and even after I had gotten well past where the shack could have possibly been, I continued up this road just to see where it would end; I thought I must surely eventually hit the bush that used to be all that was there. But I never did. Finally I hit more roads that intersected with this one, and still there was just house after house. I passed by several people out on the road, too, mostly young adults and kids. Of course, it never used to be like that! Basically, the area has become populated; it’s a real neighborhood now – no longer a swath of bush with a handful of small structures inside it. The only patches of bush I saw now were hemmed in by cement walls – as if they were someone’s property, but the owners had left them to become totally overgrown.
I found just one footpath, heading in the correct direction through one of these few plots of bush, that looked somewhat like the path that had led out to our site; so on my way back down this first road, I took it. But I came across nothing except the next road over – the middle road, the one that I was pretty sure used to be the overgrown road that had led to my home. Now an actual, usable road, though, it no longer looked the same – it was no longer the two tracks with grass growing high through the center that back then we just called a road. But, of course… nothing looked the same. As I walked up this road, and then up and down a couple of times, again it was house after house, mainly big houses (not a single shack), at least half of which looked either empty or only half-built. Some were indeed occupied, though, and again I came across young people out on the road. The other thing I came across was a great deal of burning trash. There was one particular cloud of smoke that smelled so intensely toxic that I guessed it must have been mainly all plastic that was burning, and it was painful to be near it; for a minute, as I passed by, I really felt like my brain was frying – which is a terrible feeling! And still, plenty of trash, almost all of which was plastic, was lining the road, everywhere. It’s not as if it had been pristine before, but the trash had at least been confined to the areas surrounding the few other homes out there besides ours. (Out at our site, the best option I could come up with was to dig a hole in which to bury the bit of trash we produced.)
Again I found just one spot that seemed like it could possibly be the entrance to where the shack used to be. There was a little footpath heading off in the right direction – towards the third and furthest road, and the plants at the start of the path actually looked familiar. This whole time, there had been absolutely nothing along the road to orient me, nothing that I could recognize from before; but looking at these plants, I thought… maybe. Maybe these really were the same bushes that met me every time I reached the path to our site. I had a somewhat strong mental image of the plants at the entrance to the path because, during my last trip, post-Koro, when everyone convinced me not to sleep alone out at the shack (where I did spend most of the day), I used to stop and gaze longingly up the path – potentially at this very spot – just before sundown, on my way back from a dance lesson or a visit with someone in the village. The sinking sun behind them had a way of lighting these bushes that made them look so rich, so verdant, and I would stand there taking in the image for as long as the sun lasted, before continuing on to my tent outside a neighbor’s half-built house further down the road, much closer to AAMA.
Now I carefully began to step my way along what I could of the little path – thinking about snakes. But I couldn’t make it more than probably half a dozen steps before it was completely overgrown with bush, grasses as tall as I was, and there was no seeing beyond them. …Is our site in there? The only way I would be able to know, I thought, is if I can find Ernest, and if he could show me where it was – that’s the only way.
But I don’t even really care, I thought as I passed back down the middle road, heading now for the main road from Kokrobite in order to continue on and check out the third and final road across from AAMA. What am I going to do out there? Have some ritual? Cut off my dreads? (I had been itching to do this for a while but needed, as always, to find the right setting for it; our old site seemed especially perfect because I had felt that I should do this there eighteen years before, in the wake of losing Koro, but I had been too attached to that first set of locks and never did.) No, it’s either completely overgrown, I told myself, or else it’s someone else’s property now, with a new big house on it. Yes, I would really like to find Ernest, but if I don’t, that’s totally fine, too. I didn’t need to come here to do anything in particular, or find anything in particular. I needed to come to just be here and feel what I feel.
I had felt nothing, trying to make my way into that footpath that felt closest to our site – no emotion came up for me. I had felt nothing this entire time that I had been walking and exploring my old “neighborhood;” I simply felt like I was out for a pleasant walk. I walked for over two hours straight, up and down the first road, the middle road, and finally the third road – a paved road that for sure was not our road, and all the while, I felt absolutely no emotion. And I knew there was nothing there for me.
Already the sun was going down. But about halfway through my two-week stay now, I was no longer rushing to get back to the AirBnB before dark, confident now in knowing my way around, and also getting used to the fact that I could somewhat easily be out at night here, aided by my strong glasses. When I had lived here before, I had been working on the natural improvement of my vision – through eye exercises and through going without any glasses the entire time I was here – which made for quite a different experience, as I am severely near-sighted. I was able to do this in Ghana, back then, because I wasn’t driving or using computers or doing anything else that really required sharp vision. I could see well enough to get by in the daylight, especially here, so close to the equator, where the strong sunlight shed so much illumination. But going out at night, which I did not do often, had always entailed a bit of a challenge for me. Now I had to remind myself that I was wearing glasses – the pair with my strongest prescription in them, even, and that I would be okay walking back in the dark.
But I found that walking back in the dark was a very easy thing to do now, anyway – with lights from the shops lining the road, the occasional overhead streetlight, plenty of light from the headlights of passing traffic, and with the moon getting towards full – all of this but the moon was different from before. There were plenty of people on the road now, too, and I walked slowly amongst them, feeling a bit weary. I was thinking about the nostalgia we can get for places we’ve lived in the past, how much a particular place can be wrapped up with a certain period of time, a certain experience we’ve had. But we can never entirely go back and revisit, I felt – we can never really see it how it was. As soon as we move on, leaving it behind, the place moves on as well, adjusting to its new humans or evolving in its own way, and it will no longer be the same. When I had been allowed by new owners to walk through my two childhood homes, I was only looking at someone else’s home – and maybe, at most, a ghost of what used to be my home, or a shell of it. How much did any place really hold my memories?
Ok, maybe I don’t need more than the two weeks here, I thought as I neared the AirBnB – I had been wondering before I had set out whether it was time to make some arrangements in order to stay longer. Now it seemed that maybe just one more visit to the area, one more walk through AAMA and up the middle road, would be enough for me.
By a couple days after my first visit to my old neighborhood, I was absolutely loving being back in Ghana, loving feeling so independent here, and, most of all, LOVING being fully immersed within a writing retreat. There was so much to say – both to myself, to help me understand and move on, and to everyone else, because I had very clearly been feeling the need to share myself lately. It was because I was so loving the uninterrupted time alone to work with all the writing that I began to wonder if two weeks in Ghana would be long enough.
This was a Tuesday, a particularly quiet day. The weekend had been so terribly loud, and now, after so many people had cleared out on Monday, the village felt blissfully relatively empty and quiet. In retrospect, it was the quiet that allowed me to even consider staying longer, to think that perhaps two weeks might not be long enough for me to spend here – only because there was so very much writing work to be done, and this was the perfect opportunity for it, and meanwhile I might also still need a few more exploratory missions to my old site.
These thoughts emerged after my daily exploration had taken me to Big Milly’s, the old guesthouse – the only guesthouse that was here in the village before, where I had spent my first two or three nights upon my arrival in 1999, before finding a bungalow to rent further down the road towards AAMA. Back then it had been the main (or perhaps only) place to go to socialize, and now it seemed to be known for its “Reggae Night,” held every weekend, so I had been assuming that the place gets fairly packed on weekends. This quiet day had seemed like the perfect time to check it out.
In all my explorations thus far, in all I had seen of Kokrobite, so far this, the original guesthouse, Big Milly’s, also known back then as Wendy's Place, was the one thing that I found to look somewhat the same, to have remained at least somewhat unchanged. Yes, it was more crowded with structures now – a surf school, a shop, etc.; but the guest-room structures looked the same; the bar, though looking very updated, was at least in the same place it used to be; and the restaurant… the restaurant looked exactly as I remembered it – it was the same open-air structure, up a short flight of steps, it had the same big thatched roof, the same sandy floor, same long wooden tables and benches. This was where I met Koro, where we had our first, exceedingly long conversation, where he showed up and sat down at the table with me and my travel buddy after we had eaten dinner, on our second night there, and began to talk and talk and talk and talk. And then he talked some more. And then he continued to talk extremely late into the night, long after the travel buddy had excused himself to go to sleep. There we sat – right over there. And here I was now, sitting at one of the tables, with a view out to the ocean – and it was all the same. And I did not feel any sadness.
After making a very specific and simple special-order food request from the kitchen, I ended up having a long talk about diet with a woman working there, who surprised me with the fact that she had tried out vegetarianism, veganism, and even raw foods and juicing – that she had learned about all these things there in Ghana. Vegetarianism was somewhat common amongst the Rastas, but not the mainstream Ghanaian population (and sure enough, she explained that while she had felt great, she had found all of these diets too difficult to stick to while surrounded by family and friends always eating the usual very heavy and meat-oriented Ghanaian diet); but it was really her interest in raw foods and juicing and the health aspect of it all that surprised and inspired me. Maybe some positive, conscious changes had taken place on the health front while I had been away… Eventually I told her about being here eighteen years ago; and when I asked if Wendy, an older English woman, who had been very kind to me before, was still the owner of this place, she said, "Oh yes, she is sitting and eating just outside there – let me take you to her..."
Wendy, of course, did not remember me, or even Koro, but she invited me to sit down and join her and we had a nice talk. When I told her that I had originally come here to study dance, she informed me that the local group with whom I used to study is still going strong. And when I mentioned my particular teacher by name, she informed me that she thinks Yaa has been living in America for a long time now. Then I stopped to consider whom else she might know. And this is how I found out that… Ernest is still around.
Ernest, a musician who had been a friend of Koro’s closest friends in Accra, had been the owner of the land on which Koro and I had lived, and I thought perhaps Wendy might know him because he had frequented this place so often. Yes, she did remember Ernest, and she said he was living somewhere around these parts, with a Swiss woman.
…I would love to find Ernest, I thought. Does he perhaps still own that land? He had never lived there, back in the day, because it was too undeveloped – there was no water, and he didn’t want to carry water as we did. I had figured for sure he would have sold it by now and the shack would have been torn down to make way for some big house, like all the others that have popped up everywhere around here. …But wow… now… for one night, at least, before going to explore more the following day, I would hold onto this glimmer of a possibility that he actually kept that land, that it was still out there, somewhat undeveloped...
By two days into my stay in Ghana, I was loving being back there. I still simply loved Ghana – or maybe it was just Africa in general, but either way, there was just so much to love about being there. It felt amazing to return to the slower pace of African life – no hustle, no busy-ness or rush – this is simply not the way it is there. Coming from America, or from the Western world in general, to me life feels generally relaxed in Ghana, and less complicated. There is a certain EASE to life there, which seems very much wrapped up with the mentality of the people, the cultural mindset. This was all so much of what I had loved about living there and what had made me want to live there, and now it was so easy to sink right back into it, and it felt so refreshing to do so. Not to mention the fact that it was warm, and there was moisture in the air, and it felt so much easier (especially coming from the cold of Munich) for a body to be in this environment.
As for Ghana in particular, as compared to most other countries in West Africa, it was so easy for me there because of the language, as most people speak English, or at least some. (Though it’s been on my to-do list for years, ever since becoming interested in traveling more widely within West Africa, I unfortunately have yet to learn French.) Of course, one needs to be able to communicate in order to tap into the cultural mindset, or to be able to interact enough to feel that you exist within the culture rather than just alongside it. But what I appreciated most about the lack of a language barrier in those first few days back was that it also meant independence. This was important to me – that I could function on my own here, was not dependent on a host or a guide. If I needed something, I could go ask the women at the “market” along the road, and they, or more often their kids, would help me find whatever it was I was looking for. I also loved that this could easily turn into a small adventure – you ask one woman if she knows where you can find something and then get led to four different places by four different people before finally you get it – plus many nice interactions along the way!
My independence played a big part in the way I was feeling – so free, so activated. And I knew, too, that my past there was also playing a role in the way I felt now – in some way, I did still know Ghana, and that made me feel very comfortable there. All in all… I just felt so very happy inside. I realized that it wasn’t even necessarily the fact of being in the environment of Ghana that was doing it, that it might have had just as much or even more to do with something inside of myself – something that had clicked into place now – now that I finally made it back, as I had just known for so many years I needed to do. But whatever it was… so very happy inside…
* * *
By three days in, I was ready to take my first walk down towards the area where I used to live. It’s about a twenty minute leisurely walk down the road from Kokrobite, and as I ventured along, I continued to be amazed at the changes in the area – now at all the huge structures that have gone up. One massive, modern, multi-story edifice had big signs on the side reading, “APARTMENTS & HOMES, SHORT & LONG TERM LEASE, AVAILABLE NOW, STUDIO – 3 BEDROOMS” – and this just looked so bizarre to me! This kind of thing simply did not exist here, in any form, eighteen years back; my travel buddy and I had been lucky to find a little bungalow to rent by word of mouth. For the most part, though, all of these giant structures, so many that I passed along the main road, which all looked quite new, also looked completely empty. It was as if the village was trying to move in a certain direction, but it wasn’t quite there yet.
What had stayed the same, and now felt comforting in its sameness, was the land itself, the beautiful red-brown of the earth here. And there were still the ever-present chickens and goats wandering about pecking and nibbling at it, finding scraps of food amongst all the trash. …Ah yes, the trash. The plethora of trash, predominantly plastic, was another thing that had not changed; always a part of the landscape here, it still lined every road or path, and was scattered just about everywhere as well. Nor had there been any change in the standard method of trash removal – burning it, plastics and all. I had had a long talk the day before with an Italian man who has had a restaurant in Kokrobite since before my last stay there, and in the midst of talking about all the changes that have taken place in Ghana, he and his wife were saying that, after trying all these years, they just can’t get the people to understand about not burning the trash… I saw several piles of trash burning now, as I passed through patches of smoky air, and I wondered whether the haze in the sky was from some climatic source or from the sum of so many small fires burning throughout every village in the area…
Moving at a slow pace further and further down the road towards AAMA - the Academy of African Music and Arts, feeling my surroundings, taking this all in, I began to feel sudden waves of emotion rising up within me, lifting my stomach towards my throat for a second or two, just long enough to let me know they were there, to make me feel my heart beating suddenly a bit harder, and to make me wonder. This undefined raw emotion was tinged with a sense of “whoa, what-am-I-doing” – the same wary sensation that had occasionally fallen over me on the day that I traveled from Munich to Accra; and spontaneous tears now began to pop up just as they had done a few times that day as well.
AAMA was the one big structure – or compound of structures, really, all whitewashed and grand – that had been here before. It had been a hotel/drum and dance school, and it was what had originally led me to Kokrobite. I had not wound up studying music or dance there, as their lessons were pricey, but I had found that the members of the group that both taught and performed there also taught at a much more reasonable price at another space they had in Kokrobite (where I had also found more reasonably-priced accommodations). AAMA had been pricey in general, and there never seemed to be very many people staying there, but the free drum and dance performances they had offered on the weekends in their little outdoor theatre had always drawn a small crowd.
After I had married Koro, I sometimes went there to sit and do writing or editing work at a sheltered table that overlooked the beach – a quiet spot where I found I was never disturbed. This was before Koro and two others completely rebuilt the shack in a more waterproof manner before the start of the rainy season, and then used the excess scrap wood to build me a table and a stool; and though I had never minded, or even really noticed, our lack of furniture, I surely did relish the occasional outing to sit at this table – walking down the path with my bag full of notebooks, it felt like the equivalent of going to work at a library or a coffeeshop back in the States. I had discovered this spot when Koro had taken me to AAMA’s relatively private, unfrequented beach shortly after I had moved in with him, telling me that if I wanted to go to a beach, this was where I should come. He felt that I would be safe and undisturbed within AAMA because we had a special connection there – one of the night watchmen, Assibi (or Bra Assibi --> BraSibi), was his closest friend around these parts – and it seemed that to Koro this meant we were a part of AAMA’s extended family, and therefore had rights to be there.
“We can never forget BraSibi,” Koro would often say, as BraSibi was the one person who helped us with every single minute detail with which we could possibly need help in our lives out in the bush. He was also there for the bigger events – he came with us to Accra’s City Hall to be the witness at our legal wedding, he was the one who had to inform me of Koro’s passing, and it was his home in which I stayed during my first few nights back in Ghana after losing Koro. (If I haven’t mentioned this before, I was in the States, in Maine, when Koro passed.) BraSibi also cared for me when I eventually got sick (malaria Round Three) during that post-Koro trip. And he was the one person in Kokrobite whom I had thought, before embarking on this current trip, that I would like to somehow find. But the only place I had ever known in which to find BraSibi was AAMA, where he had lived with his wife and children in the workers’ quarters, and I knew from researching Kokrobite on the internet when planning my trip that AAMA was no longer up and running.
Now it was shocking to see the crumbling state of ruin in which I found it. Yes, AAMA, which used to seem so relatively grandiose out here, is now in ruins. I ventured inside the property and walked a bit through the paths that remain – while the land around them was completely overgrown, many of the paths through the site were still clear. But it felt a bit… eerie. I saw some clothes hanging out on a line near one of the run-down and empty-looking buildings – so it seemed there must be some squatters at least somewhat living in there. And I did come across a few other people passing down the paths on their way towards the beach. It was a Sunday, though, a weekend, when the area in general becomes more populated with visitors from Accra and other areas, and these folks did not look very local.
Eventually the eeriness got to me and I meandered my way back out. Koro and I had lived out in the bush directly across from AAMA – on the other side of the main road from Kokrobite; there had been an overgrown road (back then two tracks with grass growing high through the center) leading out into the bush in which just a handful of us were residing. Before I moved in that direction, though, I walked a bit further up the main road, only because the pavement had stopped at AAMA and it now felt so heavenly to walk on the wide, red dirt road, with much less traffic, in the peace and quiet, watching the big orange sun about to set directly in front of me – this was how it used to feel to walk along the road from Kokrobite. Now there was no peace and quiet along most of the length of the road up to this point, with most of the noise coming from traffic and from the occasional bar pumping out recorded music at a deafening pitch – and with all the dust and exhaust from the passing traffic as well, I found it difficult to entirely enjoy walking along Kokrobite’s “new and improved” paved road.
But time was running short – the sun would very soon perform its descent’s swift finale, and I wanted to make it back to Kokrobite before dark. So I hurried back to have a look down the road across from AAMA, the road that used to lead to the path that then led to our site. …But now there were three roads turning off from the main road, heading out across from AAMA – one at each end of AAMA’s sprawling property and one across from its middle. I was pretty sure our road had been the middle road, but I wasn’t positive. Hurrying because of the limited daylight, I made it just a short way up the middle road before I was stopped by a young, lounging Rasta brother, sitting in a little structure with a couple of friends, who (typical) wanted nothing more at this moment than to chat my ear off and get my phone number. After finally freeing myself – without being too impolite, I went just a touch further, looking at the big cement houses on either side of me, and at the cement walls dividing up the land that used to just be uninterrupted bush – only dotted here and there with a few other small structures besides ours.
The sun was falling, nearly gone now. I stopped and gazed up the road a while, wondering. …And then I decided that I wasn’t ready for this, and that time was too short, and that I would come back again, and that this was definitely enough for today.
* * *
Writing in my journal that evening, in the midst of reflecting on how, while it had been so heavenly to be down there where it was quiet, and closer to home, this was not my home anymore, and how I had stayed long enough the last time to feel, by the time I left, that a Kokrobite without Koro was no place for me… I thought about how a lot of what I had been feeling was how I have moved on, and how my life is no longer here. Maybe my heart – or part of my heart – was left here, I wrote, recalling that feeling of reunion that I had had at the beach at the end of my first day back, and maybe I just needed to come pick it up, but beyond that… I feel so… done.
Later that night, when I couldn’t sleep, I found myself writing to Koro…
Koro, I want to put this all behind me, I wrote. Of course YOU will always be with me – I know that will never change; I still feel your love, as always… But this – Kokrobite, Ghana, the pull on my heart to be here, the draw here… it’s time to lay it to rest…
My whole desire to be in Ghana, that persisted for years after you passed… that is what I want to lay to rest. The desire to create a future for myself here has passed – has probably long since passed, but I must have needed to come to really experience the fact that it truly has. Yes, I am always open to new possibilities, to exploring whatever direction the Divine provides, but right now… I feel like the direction is out of here.
…I am so thankful I have finally come. I needed to come, and I’m not done yet – I know I need a bit more time out near – or very hopefully at – our old site. And yes, it feels wonderful, in many ways, to be back in Ghana, back in Africa, and that is something for which to be thankful. But what I feel even more thankful for, in this moment, is the feeling that I can lay my life here, my past here, to rest.
And I can’t even describe to you what that means. I just know that I feel it.
When I arrived in Ghana, the whole experience was a bit overwhelming – both via the fact that here I finally was, after eighteen years away – eighteen years of maintaining the intention to come back, as well as the fact that my experience now was so strikingly different from that of each of my three arrivals in the past. First in 1997, when I came to Ghana on a study-abroad program while in college; then when I returned two years later, in 1999, seeking a life and future here; and finally on my last trip to the country in 2000, when I returned shortly after receiving the news of my husband’s very sudden and unexpected passing from this world… each of those times… I stepped off the plane and directly into the warm, welcoming, evening African air – onto those stairs that are rolled up to the plane for disembarking. The air felt amazing and refreshing and just so very welcoming – a big warm “welcome home” smacking me in the face each time. After stepping down the stairs and… I think taking a bus to the airport building itself(?), I would walk through the airport delighting in its lack of air conditioning (as I’m usually freezing in airports or any other air-conditioned building) and its lack of… rush. I have memories of it being small and warm and not very brightly lit. Things felt easy, laid-back, and… different (from the West), as I passed through Immigration and Customs…
This time… I experienced none of that, except for the lack of rush, the ease of Immigration and Customs, and the general laid-back attitude of the people. The airport was like… a “regular” airport – it felt pretty much just like the European airports I had just been passing through in Edinburgh, Munich, and Lisbon, except smaller. It had a regular jet-bridge to get us from the plane into the airport. It had air-conditioning. It had fluorescent lights. It was CLEAN. It had clean, modern bathrooms that looked just like any European airport’s bathroom. And this was all a little confusing (though I certainly didn’t mind the nice clean bathroom).
As I waited for my ride outside (still at least an hour of car travel to go, out to Kokrobite), finally enjoying the very warm African air, plenty of the men working at the airport spoke with me, and I learned that this is actually a totally new airport, that the old airport is now only used for local air traffic – within Ghana. Once I finally got picked up by the caretaker of the AirBnB I had booked, it took ages to get out of Accra; everything is extra busy right now because of Christmas, as loads of people come to the city to shop or to be with family, etc.… I was also told at the airport that Kokrobite, too, would be very busy now, and that there would be music and parties at the guesthouses every night, etc. – which are the kind of things that I never enjoyed about Kokrobite in the past… Keep in mind that when I lived here before, Kokrobite was just a landing point. I came here (after not liking the farm where I started out my journey back in ’99) because it was a place I could study dance that was outside of the city (Accra) – back then it had a hotel that doubled as a drum and dance school. But after a couple weeks it was clear that I was not actually at all fond of Kokrobite itself, and my whole “real” life in Ghana was life out in the bush – outside of the village of Kokrobite. My husband Koro and I had a very private and isolated experience together; once we were together, we very rarely went into the village. And we did not plan to stay around these parts for too long – our plans for the future involved a move up North, to his home village, in the very rural, traditional, and fertile Brong Ahafo region (the perfect place, Koro assured me, to make the organic farm that I intended to have).
But back to my arrival… Finally fully out of the city and the immense exhaust fumes with which it is filled (hello diesel fuel and no emissions controls), we took the “old” road to Kokrobite, as opposed to the supposedly super nice new road, which Justice (my host here at the AirBnB, while the English woman who owns the house is away) said he never takes because it is always too backed up with traffic. So this was the same old road I used to take… but, as I had indeed imagined, it looked nothing like before. First of all, it was paved. Second of all, there were quite a lot of other cars on it, whereas in the old days it was always pretty empty. And thirdly, the entire way out to the village, the road was now lined with little shops and kiosks that had not been there before. I was not surprised, but it was completely unrecognizable.
My first night here at my AirBnB in Kokrobite (a marvel in itself – that I found an AirBnB out here) was hard. My throat and nostrils were burning from breathing the highly-polluted air of Accra that whole time we were stuck in traffic, and the air even here in Kokrobite was – and is – extremely smoky. It seems at its worst at night, and honestly at times it really feels just like, or possibly even worse than, the smoky air we recently experienced in Santa Cruz during all the horrendous fires happening around California. Of course, I always remembered the smell of Ghana as a somewhat smoky smell – way stronger in the cities, but everywhere… it’s a mixture of foods being cooked, most often over coal braziers, AND… much worse, the burning of trash – plastics and all. Well… back in 1999ish, my senses were nowhere near as sensitive as they are now, my diet back then (simply vegan) being so very much heavier than it is now. …And with the moving towards the whole Pranic Nourishment thing… air quality is by now pretty darn important to me. My friends who were in Guinea last year warned me about this, and I knew it would probably be a bit of an issue for me, but… wowza. Yeah, it’s bad. It is really bad.
And back to that first night… the music. The recorded music, BLARING. Yes, Kokrobite (which had just gotten electricity shortly before my arrival in 1999) is already in full party/celebration mode for Christmas. And it was the start of the weekend. And I like quiet…
I reminded myself that my first night somewhere new often involves a bit of a rough transition, tried not to think too much, and then also decided that if I do nothing else here besides write, and make my requisite visit to the site of my old home, to see what is there now, and to feel what I feel, I will be a happy girl. After all, I have felt “behind” on writing work for ages, for months and months now have wanted nothing more than uninterrupted time to myself to focus on the writing work – not only to make progress with the sharing of the writing, which I have felt called to do for some time now, but to get deep into the writing itself – and just be able to be with myself in this intimate way… Honestly, in the couple of months before my departure, I was most looking forward to this small piece of my potentially five months abroad – these two weeks in Ghana – because they are two weeks ALONE, without any major agenda or schedule, which for me can only mean, hallelujah… WRITING RETREAT!!! (And let me tell ya, fast-forwarding a bit, I am enjoying it!)
Again, back to that first night… as much as I encouraged myself to try not to think too much just yet… to first give myself a minute to adjust… I couldn’t help it – the thoughts came. I might not have given them much consideration or weight, but there they were, coming and coming, that first night in Ghana – and the following morning, and into the early part of that first day here. And these thoughts were all centered on how different my experience was now – not just externally, but internally.
I think probably everyone who signed up to receive these emails, these blog posts, knows a bit of my story with Africa – the fact that I fell in love here, married a Ghanaian man, lived with him in a shack out in the bush – without water or electricity, and then, after eventually returning to the States to make some money for us – to fund the plans we had for our future in Ghana, became a sudden widow at the age of 24, when Koro very unexpectedly passed from this world (due to mysterious causes). I have written a whole memoir about the experience, and I really hope to have it published, so that those of you interested in reading more about that whole time of my life can. But for now, it’s enough to know the basics, and the fact that, back then, I only wanted to live in Ghana. I was ready to leave the America in which I grew up (suburban, middle-class, Midwestern America) far behind me – I had become quite turned off by the general culture of consumption by which I had been surrounded; had become interested in sustainable living, intentional communities, and eco-villages while in college; and then had completely fallen in love with the Ghanaian culture during my first trip here, which was during my final year of college. That first trip to Africa was life-altering, and it involved a very transformative spiritual awakening. In part, this came from my exposure to and fascination with the traditional religion here (including its ceremonies involving drum and dance) as well as from eventually hanging out with hard-core Rastas in Accra; but I believe that it was simply the God-consciousness I experienced all around me, in everyone I met, that perhaps played the biggest role in this awakening. Whatever their religion (mainly Christianity in the South, Islam in the North, Rastafarianism as a minority mostly in the South, and traditional religions everywhere – and usually mixed into all religious expression as well), the Ghanaian people all simply seemed to have the Divine in their minds, in their hearts, in THEM – as a constant of daily life. And (especially as I was emerging from the spiritual void of my very mainstream suburban American upbringing) this was what I most loved about the Ghanaian culture. …After dropping out of the academic program with which I came (and proceeding to have a bit of a crazy ride exploring Ghana on my own), I eventually decided to return to America and finish school – but mainly just in order to wait till I was ready to become a wife and mother before returning to Ghana, because by the end of that first trip, this seemed the only real option for a girl my age who wanted to live in the country and assimilate into the culture. (And I had no interest in being a volunteer, student, tourist, or any other kind of Westerner who found a way to be here for a stretch – I was in for the whole shebang.)
…When my husband Koro passed, I was beyond devastated. I was broken. I felt I had lost everything – not just my husband/partner/best friend/other half, but also the future I had with him, which was my whole life; I didn’t see anything for me back in America, other than my family, most of whom, at that time, I was having issues with (stemming from the difficult time they were having understanding or accepting the whole desire-to-live-in-Africa thing). …When Koro died, the only thing that I felt remaining for me was the Divine. God/Jah/Allah/the Divine One Within – whatever you want to call it – that was simply all that remained.
Life changed drastically for me after losing Koro. I used to be such a dreamer. I was so good at it – not just at having grand dreams/visions for my future, like a family and farm in Ghana, but even fantasies about all the minute details (especially in the two years it took me, after that first, life-altering trip to Ghana, to ready myself for the realization of these dreams). I had a very clear vision for my future, shaped by the cultures to which I had been adapting – both the Ghanaian culture and also the conscious culture within which I found myself in British Columbia, Canada, after college, where I was learning to garden organically and help care for beautiful, healthy children. …After Koro passed, all of that changed. Besides ONE sort of dream that formed about going to Guinea, which will be discussed in a later blog post… I stopped dreaming. And besides the far-fetched fantasies in which I indulged during my first year of mourning, about Koro actually still being alive somewhere… I stopped fantasizing. I also stopped having a vision for my future. Life became about service to the Divine – just follow whatever divine direction I receive, do whatever I feel divinely called or inspired to do; and eventually the basic structure of my life became …to simply do whatever I did that helped me to realize/experience the Divine manifesting through me – to help me realize/experience my Divine Self.
Dance. Craft. Write. Those were the first things that kept me going after losing Koro.
Around those former Ghana times – during, just before, and just after, I used to use medicinal herbs and fungus to help me experience the Divine. Then I discovered raw foods and dietary cleansing and found that through a drastic change in diet, I no longer needed those medicines to gain the expansion of my consciousness. And that fact, combined with the health factor – with wanting desperately to find a way to stay perfectly healthy so that I could live in Africa again without getting sick (because yes, I had come very close to dying from malaria once before…), were what got me started, back in 2001, down this road of dietary cleansing that eventually led me into Pranic Nourishment and all THAT. The ease of having the physical body in tip-top condition, as a constant, is a HUGE and wonderfully joyous aspect of the whole Pranic “diet,” or even of just a minimal liquid or fruit diet; but to me the much greater and more important part of it all is the CONSCIOUSNESS we can access – the consciousness that naturally comes – from the shifts involved with this path; and I’d say that, ultimately, that is my biggest reason for getting into it. After all, all we really have in this life is our consciousness…
…Then came the yoga. Though it started (in 2003) simply as a way for me to keep my physical body in shape for my West African dance classes, eventually… after years of daily practice, and I believe especially, for me, after years of pranayama and the regular practice of the Advanced Series (Ashtanga’s “old” 3rd and 4th)… I have found that this, too (go figure), really does help a great deal with the growth of the consciousness, with the realization/experience of the Divine Self (just like they say it does!). And with teaching the yoga, too… as to why I do it… though I always felt I would share this practice that has had such a profound effect on me – even back when I felt the effects mainly just in my physical body, what really cemented the deal was when I first began to get more serious about it (in good, sweet North Carolina) and felt the Divine coming through me in the teaching – just like with a good dance experience – feeling the ego step aside as the Divine takes “me” over and passes through “me.” I love that sensation, that feeling that it’s not “me” – the ego – doing the teaching, but that the teaching is passing through me, and beyond it being one of the major ways in which teaching feeds me, it is what tells me that yes, I should indeed teach. (Though I must admit that lately it’s mostly my sweet and dedicated students who tell me this, with their love and appreciation…)
Lately it’s the writing that has most been helping me to experience the Divine, and there is so much more to say on this subject that I have begun a whole other blog post about it, so will not spend more time on this here! I could also expound a bit on why I do the drum and dance, as these activities, too, for me, center around the experience of the Divine, but as I’m sure there will be more said on that later as well… enough on all this for now – I think you get the idea of why, in my post-Koro reality, I generally do the things I do.
And I am sharing all of this with you now, here in this particular post about my arrival in Ghana, in order to help explain that… on my first night and morning back in Ghana… my thoughts and reflections included the fact that I am no longer a 23-year-old girl seeking a settled life (husband, family, farm) in the culture with which I had fallen in love. Though I am essentially still the same girl that I was then – and really that I was even as a child… so much has also changed for me… in the way I live my life… and in the way I perceive things, and understand things. And this, it seems, is as it should be – now as a 42-year-old woman-girl, I would hope that some growth and evolution would have further developed me during the course of all this time away.
Ever since my first year away, I always thought I would be back in Ghana, or at least somewhere in West Africa, within a year or two of whatever present moment I found myself in. For the first few years after I left, it seemed that I would go in the coming winter – until something would invariably come up, or I wouldn’t have the money quite organized. After a few years, when I started with the yoga and decided to spend the next winter on Maui, to study with a particular senior teacher living there, it became “not this winter but next winter.” Every year. Literally every year since I left eighteen years ago I have thought that I was no more than a couple years away from a return to Africa. And eventually, after quite some time… there was this big question mark involved with this thought: would I want to live there again? And, too, as I became closer with my parents over the years, there was a sort of pressure attached to this question – which I know formed through their fear of the answer being a resounding YES. ...Africa had always been the escape-plan in the back of my mind – in case things got too difficult or unbearable in America, with the lifestyle, or the culture; in my mind, in my memory, in my past experience of it… Ghana was at least an affordable and easy place for me to live, where I also loved the culture and got to experience so much continual personal growth…
Eighteen years have passed. And there is so much that has remained the same for me, during my time away, including my preference to live simply, and ideally in a place that I not only love but that also challenges me and propels me to grow and evolve – which has all been so much of the draw of being in Africa… But now it also seems that so much has changed for me since I was living in Ghana. Back then, I really had zero interest in a life in America. Since then… a life in America eventually developed. And I have accepted that – I don’t resist it happening anymore, like I believe I did for many years post-Ghana. When I returned to Santa Cruz in 2012, I dedicated myself to living there for at least four or five years, just to see what would happen if I did indeed stay put somewhere for that long (my previous record being a whole two years, also in Santa Cruz). And though I do feel, after my many years of the semi-nomadic life, that I tend to eventually get stagnant when I stay put for too long a stretch, without some rather interesting travel in there, some experience of another culture or another place to challenge me or move me or shake things up and spark some growth… I do love the life that has developed for me in that sweet bubble we call Santa Cruz. And I know this is mostly due to the wonderful community that has developed for me there, both the drum/dance community as well as the yoga community, and the wider community of random friends and acquaintances – all of whom make Santa Cruz my home. I had none of that when I was in Ghana eighteen years ago, starting a life for myself here.
As I mentioned, all I really saw for myself back in America after I lost Koro – other than the potential for education, because by then I knew I wanted to at least study a bit of permaculture and yoga – was family, with whom things were rocky at the time. Now, settling into my first night in Ghana, my thoughts also included the fact that… nowadays… having easy (relatively easy) access to my family is much more important to me than it was back then. My parents were much younger eighteen years ago, and coming so recently out of the experience of having them there for me all the time as I was growing up with them, I honestly didn’t care so much about being able to see them every so often – it just wasn’t something I thought about. Now… it’s not just that my parents are getting older, which certainly is a factor. It’s also that… my mom and I are extremely close – even much closer, I think, than we were when I was 23 years old, which was still plenty close – this has been a lifelong thing. But since then we have had some experiences together that have sort of cemented our relationship as… partners, of a sort. We check in with each other daily; we’re there for each other; we’re a team. And with my extended family as well, which includes quite a lot of special people… while I have always known and appreciated that I do have such an amazing family, I think that perhaps as I am getting older I am cherishing my time with them ever more. And this is all to say that… unlike before, I can no longer see just living the rest of my life somewhere in Africa, without at least a very regular back and forth to the States to spend time with my loved ones there.
And finally, my thoughts that first night and morning here in Kokrobite also included the fact that… Africa doesn’t just mean Ghana anymore. When I first came here in 1997, and then in 1999/2000, Ghana was my only exposure to West Africa, and its culture, and its music and dance – and it was a wonderful introduction to African culture, all those years ago. But since then… Guinea, and Senegal, and Mali – my drum and dance teachers in the States are all from these countries. And as for the music and dance… I will talk about this in a later post, when we reach the Guinea stage of the trip, but for now I will just tell you that I have loved the drum and dance I found from Guinea so much that I have always been hopeful about enjoying spending time in that country, where I am headed, for potentially four and a half months, just after Ghana. I realize I have no idea if I will like Guinea, or if I will love it as I have loved Ghana, but I might, and I hope I do, because I know that, so far, at least since my first trip to the continent, I have always craved time in Africa, as part of my life in general, and because Guinea is much more relevant to the life I have finally created for myself back in the States.
That first night, morning, and afternoon in Ghana… while I acknowledged that I felt open, as always, to whatever the universe and the Divine might bring my way, to whatever direction in which I felt led to go – while who knew what would happen during this stay in Ghana… I felt… so far… that Ghana was my past, and that this trip would be a laying-it-to-rest. It’s not even so much that I wanted to come here, I knew, but that I have felt for so many years now that I needed to come back, simply to feel whatever I feel – just to be here and experience the place and the culture again, and just… be with myself and feel. I have known that my previous thoughts of “a life” here had gradually been left behind, over the years – that thoughts of a long-term “life” anywhere, in fact, have not been on the table, either – as planning too far into the future completely stopped upon losing Koro, and the resultant change in the way I approached my life – which involved letting go of so much desire, including the desire to have a certain kind of future.
…Still, though… all that being said… at the same time… I also must admit that I did love it here so very much before that I have always felt like I at least needed to give it a chance to take me, in some manner, again…
* * *
My first day here in Ghana was restful and contemplative – all these thoughts and reflections swirling around in my head, and coming out on the page, as I lounged on the big bed in my room at the AirBnB. As I wrote away, suddenly the background noise of recorded music (and nothing good) was broken into by some live drumming. Hallelujah! It filled me with energy, and eventually motivated me to stop what I was doing and finally step off the property of the AirBnB and out into the world. …And as soon as I started walking down the red dirt road, surrounded by Ghanaians… I got a huge smile on my face. It just felt SO GOOD! To be here, to see Ghanaians all around me… to feel my body moving after the long journey and the long rest… to feel my independence in this country where most people speak at least some English – to be able to walk up the road and easily communicate enough to buy some fruit at some of the kiosks now there (one of the changes that actually makes it so much easier to be here now – no more making trips to another village quite a ways away to get to a market, like I used to have to do)…
After dropping off the oranges, pineapple, and watermelon at the AirBnB, I also took a quick walk down to the beach. …The ocean’s water was warm on my feet. And I was in an area of the beach familiar to me from my arrival in 1999 (though it all looks different, now totally lined with structures – but the one guest house that existed back then, my point of reference, is still there). And the ocean was… just beautiful. Walking along the beach, I felt my past here, and Koro, more strongly, just as I often do when walking along the ocean at West Cliff back in Santa Cruz. I stopped for a moment to stand still and gaze out at the water, before turning around to make it back to my room before the disorientation of dark – conscious of how very swiftly night comes here, so close to the equator… And looking, in my stillness, at the immensity of the water… I felt my heart so fully. Not that I felt this or that – any particular way, but just that I FELT, my HEART. As if I had indeed left it here, all those eighteen years ago, and now here it was, waiting for me, greeting me, joining what had always remained inside me. …That sure felt good.
A friend recently asked for a contribution for a book he’s writing on the “Why To” of yoga practice. Here’s what came through:
When a friend showed me some yoga poses just after we graduated from college, in 1998, they felt good, physically, and so it only seemed the intelligent thing to do to begin doing them regularly. I knew nothing about yoga at the time – growing up mainly in Omaha, NE, in the mid-’80s to ’90s, I’m really not sure I had ever even heard of yoga until near the end of my college days. After college, I became extremely nomadic, mostly working on organic farms in exchange for food and shelter (WWOOFing), and while I had very little money to spend on classes, whenever I found myself somewhere with a free community yoga class, I would drop in and pick up one or two more things.
This is how I started down the path of yoga – so simply, and that simplicity has never changed. I love my yoga practice; I generally find the approximately three hours a day that I currently get to spend in meditation, asana, and pranayama quite heavenly. I do these things because I enjoy them, and it has always been this way. They feel good, as they should. As I have heard said before by some senior teacher – or maybe many of them, “if it doesn’t feel good, you’re not doing it right.”
In 2001, I spent a couple months as an apprentice/intern at the EcoVillage Training Center on “The Farm” in Tennessee, an old commune from the ’70s now turned community. As part of the apprenticeship, we were able to take yoga classes at no charge at the community yoga studio, where the most challenging class, which I preferred over the rest, was called “Ashtanga.” Later I would realize that the class was more “Ashtanga-based” – it was not a strict following of the Primary Series; but what I took away from that class were two things: #1) the word Ashtanga – that this was the style of yoga that I liked; and #2) Surya Namaskar A and B (Ashtanga’s sun salutations), which I learned well enough to remember, and each of which I began to do a few times every morning.
In my first weeks of practicing Ashtanga’s sun salutations (and nothing more than these), my arms and shoulders were killing me!!! I had so very little upper body strength back then. Growing up, I was always very skinny (despite the colossal amount of food I generally consumed) and weak, as well as completely un-athletic – typically one of the very last kids picked for teams in gym class. The only sport that I got into was horseback riding (jumping and dressage) – which, for me, took more strength of will than physical strength. I rode from about age 9 to 17, and as I was never taught to stretch before or after riding, I also became extremely stiff during this time.
About a year and a half after starting to practice the sun salutations, I was working in a raw foods restaurant in New York City, with a waitress who was an Ashtanga teacher. It wasn’t until the very end of my five-month stint in NYC that I made it to one of her classes. This was the first time I saw the entire Primary Series being practiced, and I was blown away – I think it must have been seeing Supta Kurmasana that really shattered my mind. I bought David Swenson’s Practice Manual the next day, and I took it with me to the farm I was heading to in Costa Rica, where I had lived once before, and where, I found upon returning, they happened to have just built a yoga platform. On January 1st, 2003, I took my Manual out to the platform and began my daily practice of the Primary Series.
I liked Ashtanga because it was active – not nearly as active as West African dance, which by then was both my primary physical and spiritual practice, but much more active than any other type of yoga I had ever found. And I liked it because it involved a set series of postures; I liked that I could learn the series and then practice on my own, meaning that I could take it with me wherever I went and didn’t need to always be in a class. As for classes, too, I liked that I did not have to listen to continual instructions, or watch someone, in order to be led through what to do, and that I could advance at my own pace – for me, the Mysore class was the perfect way to learn (and, eventually, teach, as I generally prefer to keep the talking to a minimum).
By about five or six months into my daily practice, I knew I was ready for a teacher, that I needed to be pushed further within the Primary Series or start learning the Intermediate Series, that I couldn’t go further on my own with just the Practice Manual and occasionally dropping in on a class. I researched each of the teachers in the old picture shown in the first few pages of Swenson’s Manual and then signed up for a workshop with Nancy Gilgoff, the only active teacher from that original group who was female. By the end of a powerful two or three days with her, I had decided to travel to Maui the following winter to study with her – and, as it turned out, with her assistant Casie, who took over the classes while Nancy was traveling. On January 1st, 2004, I was on a plane headed to Maui.
INTERMEDIATE/SECOND SERIES – HEALING – PHYSICALLY AND EMOTIONALLY
Whereas Primary Series had felt like a way to keep my body together, to keep me physically fit and able to safely do the other physical activities in my life, Intermediate Series was very plainly HEALING me. For a few years before I began the Intermediate Series, I was visiting chiropractors all the time, putting my out-of-alignment back back in order. Once I began to get strong in Second, I never went to another chiropractor.
But now I also began to access the emotional body. The reason my back was so “broken?” Well… a little back-story on me (no pun intended)… A couple years before I began my Ashtanga practice, I had suffered the biggest trauma of my life thus far, becoming a widow at the age of 24, losing not only my (Ghanaian) husband, after being given less than a year with him, but also the sweet, simple life in West Africa (my dreamland) that went with him. What I saw as my whole life and future were suddenly, quite unexpectedly, gone, as was my best friend and other half – which, of course, was the worst part. In the following year of profound mourning, I had stored a great deal of my grief and pain, which I was not ready to deal with, in a certain spot in my upper back; and this spot hardened, layer after layer – eventually becoming numb, as I also worked for about five months as a cashier – stuck behind the cash register in the same repetitive motions for eight hours a day (at a new health-food-store chain called Whole Foods)…
As the backbends in Second Series began to strengthen the muscles in my back, getting them to the point where they could hold my spine in a more comfortable position – a more proper position for functioning in the world, they also dislodged the emotions stored in that physical, knotted-up spot. I was told that moving into Second Series typically brings out anger or sadness, or both. For me, it was pure sadness. Tears and tears and tears and more tears… And some of my ribs began moving – moving out of place before they could move into a more proper place – and the whole thing was really quite painful! But so very necessary – and by then I thoroughly trusted the practice and whatever process it was going to put me through. And thank goodness I had found this healing space on Maui, where I felt so supported – in the yoga studio, in the ocean (which always helped tremendously during those physically painful times), and in Nancy’s and Casie’s hands – which I also always trusted completely.
In my first couple years of practice, there were times when I would miss my practice for a few days or maybe even up to a week or so, due to travel or some other life event, and by the end of that week or so, my body would be feeling it – in particular, my back pain would return. But I soon realized there was more that I was missing than just the asanas that seemed to be putting my body back in a proper, non-painful position. I missed the breath. The quality of my breath soon began to feel different without the Ashtanga practice and its particular breath. And I began to see a piece of the truth behind what my teacher had been professing – that breath is the most important part of this practice. Then pranayama came into the picture (following Second Series), and the quality of my breath changed immensely. It wasn’t long before I felt I simply could not take a deep breath if for some reason I missed a day or two of pranayama.
By now, in 2018, 15 years into my daily practice, my understanding is that it’s not just a matter of “breath,” but it’s prana, it’s life-force, it’s vital energy, and that through this practice, we are learning not only to take it in and refine it, but also to direct it within our bodies – the physical body as well as the emotional, mental, energetic/subtle, and spiritual bodies that are so intricately entwined with the physical. The more we do the practice, it seems to me, the more conscious of the prana we become, and the better we can become at harnessing and directing this vital and incredible energy that is the source of life itself… Wow – pretty big stuff!
So here we go, bringing prana, life-force, vital energy, into the body through the breath, spreading it through the body as we open the body’s nadis – energy channels, via the movement of the breath/prana within the postures… meanwhile gaining more and more interesting postures as we advance along… accessing ever more nooks and crannies in our bodies (and not just our physical bodies)… waking up ever more of our Selves…
THE MAGIC OF ADVANCED A/THIRD SERIES
For me, Advanced A, or the “old” Third Series, feels like magic – and always has, even in my early days of practicing it when it was SO CHALLENGING! Advanced A has so clearly had the power to completely transform me; if I’ve started off the practice feeling unwell for any reason (not enough sleep, dietary mishap, etc.), Third will have turned that around before I know it, and by the end I’ll be feeling amazing again, my entire body charged with energy. (And what better way is there to walk through your day?) I have experienced this countless times over the years. And yes, to a certain extent, I have experienced this with any series in the Ashtanga syllabus, but with Advanced A, for me, the feeling tends to be much more pronounced.
It has also served to make me strong like never before; on a physical level (though I suppose also, simultaneously, branching out to all the other levels), Advanced A has helped me tremendously with developing my strength. Once I had started to do West African dance on a regular basis, a couple years before I began my Ashtanga practice, and was stretching before and after dance class, the flexibility had begun to come to my body pretty easily. But the strength… for me that took much more time to develop. A great deal of Third was hard in the beginning. And the fact that eventually, after some years of practicing it generally three times a week, it became not hard can still feel a bit surprising to me. Watching other people in the Maui yoga shala doing certain parts of Third, I used to think… no way – I cannot see myself ever being able to do that. …But this is the power of practice. You do the practice and you change, and your body changes; the practice develops you. It can feel quite miraculous, but it actually makes perfect sense.
Advanced A has also taken me into deeper levels of healing the wounds in my back. Just as I had this experience with the Intermediate Series in the early days of practicing it, I have also had the experience of some degree of back pain/discomfort returning if for some reason I’ve been slacking on my practice of the Advanced Series. On an emotional level as well, Advanced A has helped to facilitate more “letting go” of past trauma – coming along with not just the further opening but the strengthening of that wounded spot in my upper back – and with the bringing of ever more prana into the area, as some of the postures have provided me with a way to gain deeper access.
Looking back, I think that for me, the main effects of starting a daily practice of the Primary Series were that it started to get the body in shape and realigned, and it started to develop the breath and the movement of energy. Starting on Intermediate Series began to really open the energy body for me, to “clear the nadis,” as they say – to clear or open the body’s energetic pathways for the prana to traverse. And, of course, it began to strengthen my damaged back, and all of this also resulted in a hearty dose of emotional cleansing. …As for Advanced A? Besides the dramatic strengthening of the entire body, all I’ll say is… MAJOR MOVEMENT OF ENERGY. And while these have been the most notable, or noticeable, effects, meanwhile, all of the series, always utilizing Ashtanga’s signature breath-with-sound, have subtly been working on calming the mind…
FALLING IN LOVE WITH ADVANCED B/FOURTH SERIES
After about six or seven years of practicing Advanced A generally three times a week, and by then feeling quite strong with it, I began to feel interested in Advanced B, the old Fourth Series – the final set series in the “old-school” Ashtanga syllabus. For one thing, I was curious about what it would do for my body (maybe even deeper levels of healing in my back?); but my biggest reason for wanting to do it, if my teacher felt me capable and ready for it, was to keep Advanced B from dying out. I knew of only one woman who was definitely still practicing it at the time (an amazing and beautiful badass of a woman, incidentally), and she was in her 60’s and not a yoga teacher – and therefore, I thought, would most likely not be passing it on. It seemed that all the other folks in my teacher’s generation who used to practice it in their younger days were no longer practicing it – or teaching it, and that outside of my relatively small “old-school” Ashtanga community, the younger generations of Ashtanga practitioners who made it to the advanced series were all learning the “new-school” way (in which the old Third and Fourth have been divided into more series, as well as switched up into a different order of postures – an order that generally seems much less sensible to those of us still practicing the old way). At that time, my teacher – one of only a few senior teachers, as far as I know, still teaching the advanced series in the old way – had only successfully passed Advanced B on to a couple of people, and that was decades before and I had no idea if those women were still practicing it. …So I really felt strongly that if I was able, I should do all I could to keep my beloved “old-school” tradition fully alive.
…I had no idea what a gift Advanced B, the “old” Fourth Series, would be. I fell so instantly in love with it, from the very first day of trying just the first piece of it, that I soon felt like I was having an affair – cheating on my beloved Third Series!
While I had seen the previous three series working on my physical, emotional, energetic, and mental bodies, for me, Advanced B finally clearly tapped into the spiritual body. …While for so many people yoga was what they considered their “spiritual path,” I had never felt that way about it, and I had never strongly felt the “spiritual” side of my yoga practice – at least not more than in the way that any of my practices have a spiritual element to them, which really they all do… Perhaps it was because I already had established West African dance as my most spiritual practice by the time I started the yoga that I never had felt the yoga was my “spiritual practice;” the dance had always so strongly and clearly tapped into the spiritual body, making my spirit soar, giving me my most easily-accessed and straight-forward experiences of blissful Union with the Divine One, that everything else paled in comparison. …But with Fourth Series… The best way I can describe its effect on me… was that it reached down into the deepest discovered levels of me – into that Divine I – the Self with a capital “S” that dancing and drumming had always accessed so much more easily… it found its way to reach down into this deep Divine level of Me, and then to pull it out/up/forward/backward, inward/outward/surround-sound/all-around… to encase me, fill me, shine forth from me… and calm me… It was so calming, this Fourth Series. And I have always been an extremely CALM person, life-long, but even for me, such a calm person, wow… this calm feeling that started to come to me within both the practice and the aftermath of Advanced B… I liked it. I liked it a lot. And I still like it a lot. I don’t know whether this calm, peaceful feeling that this series brings to me comes from its particular postures themselves, or from its design of intense, strength-inducing postures followed by either calm, meditative postures or intensely deep stretches… or whether it’s just from the calm and ease and grace and peace that naturally come to us when that Divine aspect inside radiates through us – that come to us when we experience our Divine Nature… But whatever the cause, every single time I do it, which is generally twice a week, Advanced B is such a gift, a prize – it really feels like one of the greatest gifts I have ever received in this lifetime.
SELF-REALIZATION IS THE NAME OF THE GAME
From my very oldest practice for knowing the self, writing, through all my practices… I feel that essentially it’s all Yoga – it’s all Union; it’s all about Consciousness, Self-Realization. Whether it’s feeling the Divine take over and move my body in dance class, shoving the ego out of the way as I am united with the rhythm, the music… or whether it’s feeling the music pass through my own body, as I play West African rhythms with a group of other drummers, all of our different parts clicking together in Union within the same groove… or whether it’s feeling the Divine flow of words spilling forth onto the page, as they use me as their vessel to manifest into the world… or feeling the Divine flow of creativity as I contentedly work on some sewing or textile project… or whether it’s feeling the Divine Prana filling me and moving me as I do my yoga practice, moving through me and subtly expanding my consciousness… it’s all a piece of the puzzle of my own journey into Self-Realization.
This is Yoga – this Union with the One, this Self-Realization, this knowing of, and living with – being, the Divine Self. There are countless ways in which we can come closer to ourselves, to our Divine Natures, countless paths we can take, practices, etc. For me, walking through this lifetime, it wasn’t the yoga that first led me to the Divine – I first found the Divine, within me and within all I witnessed around me, during my first, profoundly life-altering trip to Africa, immersed as I suddenly was in a God-conscious culture. And so I was never seeking anything spiritually with the yoga practice – it just felt good physically, so I kept with it because that seemed the intelligent thing to do. And over all these years, I have found it to be one of the most essential ways for me to keep my physical body functioning well (proper rest and diet being the only two factors I have found to have an even greater impact on me). Over time, I have also seen the yoga help me to heal old wounds; certainly I have seen its calming, clarifying effect on me; and perhaps what has lately come to have the greatest impact on me has been its contribution to the development of my awareness and use of prana… All in all, eventually the yoga practice became one of the most significant practices or tools that I have welcomed into my life – to help me find or remain in balance, to help me heal and evolve, and ultimately to bring me closer to the Divine.
It can be hard to gauge the effects of a daily practice you have done for years (a mere 15 for me, as I write this in 2018) – it is like a mother not noticing how much her toddler has grown in half a year because she is witnessing/living the growth on such a steady, subtle level every single day. But I will say that, within two or three years of daily practice, and continuing on through the present, I could feel the following effects. Physically, I simply can’t imagine being comfortable in my body, as I walk through my life, without the asana practice. I can see that, through this practice, I have been learning how to hold/inhabit my body, as I move through this world. And I have been learning how to breathe, how to more fully access and use my lungs – which also amounts to learning how to take in more of the prana all around me. Mentally, I know the meditation and the pranayama, along with the asana practice, work wonders for me – I have felt the difference in the quality of my mind, my thoughts, my focus, when, at times, I have missed a couple days of any of these elements. Emotionally, I know the practice has helped me evolve – I have experienced it, mostly through the spontaneous sobbing – and the resultant feeling of “letting go” – that has often sprung from me in the midst of my asana practice (predominantly in the early years of developing the Intermediate Series). The practice has also certainly served to increase my awareness of the energetic or subtle body, and it has helped to remove blocks that get in the way of the free flow of energy within it. …And as for the spiritual body? …To me it seems the spiritual body doesn’t need any help – it is so clearly perfect as it is, always; but I suppose the practice can help reveal that fact. If nothing else, it seems that getting those other major bodies more in order and alignment – “in good shape” – is what we need to do in order to let the Spirit, our Divine Essence, be realized, experienced, and shine forth.
Physically, emotionally, mentally, energetically, spiritually… the yoga practice has made me so very much stronger than I imagine I would have been without it. And it has helped me to feel… whole, and together, and… just… how I am. It is a gift for which I am ever thankful.
Finding Our Way: In Response to Some Recent Exposure to the Greater Ashtanga Community… (June, 2018)
The following is what came through me after reading the two posts linked below, which I highly recommend reading. Though I’m not in the habit of sharing my thoughts or writing so publicly, something is inspiring me to share now – perhaps it’s the raw courage it must have taken for all of the people involved in these posts to share their own stories, and the connection and inspiration I felt from reading them…
Being exposed to the information in articles like these, I feel thankful that my Ashtanga education was cloistered away on Maui, within a small, loving, supportive, ragtag community, and isolated, for a long time, from the now vast Ashtanga community out in the world. I feel thankful that I was always taught that this particular practice is about the breath (as well as the natural development of the bandhas (energy locks), and the movement of energy in general), and not the asanas (postures); thankful that I was taught that my own practice is my best teacher; that I was taught that the first priority in any posture is to not be in pain – to find a way to get out of pain if you are experiencing it; and that meditation was encouraged (for everyone). I feel extremely thankful that I had already found, long before finding Ashtanga and beginning a yoga practice, the Divine One Within, and that I already knew that I know myself better than anyone else can know me, that only I alone could figure out my own unique path through this life, or how to live it in the best way. I feel thankful that I sought out a female teacher, knowing that would work best for me; thankful that I found, straight-away, the very gifted teachers that worked so well for me – not only in the senior teacher I sought out, but also in the one I was lucky enough to discover was her assistant in her home studio, as well as her substitute there during her many travels. And I feel ever so thankful that I was taught, by these two women, in Ashtanga’s “old-school” style. I feel thankful that I have never cared about authorizations or certifications and so certainly did not pursue that route. I never went to Mysore (nor felt much of a pull to go), only ever practiced with Pattabhi Jois in a workshop in San Francisco near the end of his life, had no personal relationship with him, and only knew him through the many stories of my teacher, who was one of the first Westerners to begin practicing with him, back in the early 1970’s. (Back then, as she has described, classes were generally comprised of only four to six people and were taught quite differently from how the whole scene became when the population exploded, moving from a handful of Westerners studying with the Jois family in Mysore to hundreds of Westerners.) Aside from my deep gratitude for the fact that Pattabhi Jois developed and shared this particular practice that I love so much, I feel the lineage to the Jois family in my own practice only through my main teacher’s deep connection to Pattabhi Jois, and through my own studies with his son, Manju – who left Mysore and stayed in America at his first chance, who also still teaches in the “old-school” manner that I have found to work so well for me, and who has always seemed fun, filled with good humor, easy-going, and lacking in dogma. And for all this, too, I am now feeling thankful – for all the recent drama surrounding Pattabhi Jois is hard enough to get one’s head around without having had a personal relationship with the man.
Above all, I feel thankful, so very, very thankful, that this particular practice did come into my life, because it has helped me heal and evolve and get strong, and because I just plain ENJOY it so much.
I’ve recently been working on a little article/essay for a friend on the “Why To” of my yoga practice, for a book he’s writing, and it has made me think about this so much – why I do it, why I love it, how thankful I am for it. I also have been feeling thankful that he asked me to contribute, this old friend from my yoga community/family, because in the past year and a half or so, I have felt a bit… excommunicated from this special group of yogis of which I was always so happy to feel a part. This feeling has eventually arisen in the wake of the dissolution of my relationship with my primary Ashtanga teacher. To me, from my perspective, this ending of our 13-year relationship seems to have stemmed from me needing, as always, to follow the guidance of the “Guru within” – the most knowledgeable and true guide of all; to walk my own course – live my own lifestyle; and one major aspect of that lifestyle – diet (an admittedly “radical” diet for most people to comprehend) – not fitting into what my teacher believed to be appropriate or even safe for this particular practice (no matter what I may have found to the contrary in my own experience over the past 15 years of daily Ashtanga practice, including 11 years of “Advanced” series practice – decades of practice behind me certainly not, but I don’t exactly feel like a newbie either…). Because of my need to live in a way that works for ME, my need to take responsibility for my own health, and listen to my own body, to do what’s right for me personally, using my own knowledge of myself and what I have experienced to work for me over the past twenty years now of increasing consciousness around dietary changes, etc. (but also perhaps because of misunderstandings/communication issues, hurt feelings, and my deep-seated need for total, and admittedly sometimes tactless, honesty and openness when communicating with someone, especially someone important to me, and especially on a topic important to me…), I lost not only one of my yoga teachers, but also, I feel, my place in my yoga community (though certainly not my close friends from that community). And this makes me feel like I have lost my voice. Hence the deep appreciation for this writing assignment from my friend – and perhaps also this impulse I feel now to share this post so publicly, something I am by no means in the habit of doing…
…Until I began to do some traveling with my teacher, my Ashtanga education always took place in such a sheltered little world on Maui that when I finally did start to see some of what was happening out in the wider world of Ashtangis – with people so often getting injured, and with the “new-school” way of practicing and teaching and all that involves (people being held in Primary Series for so long, an apparently increasing emphasis on the postures in general, etc.), I was truly shocked. I remember being at a workshop with David Williams in Chicago, about seven years into my practice – I think it was my first time “out in the wider Ashtanga world;” and when he said that the practice should feel good, that you should feel better and better with every breath, it was a revelation to the vast majority of the people in the room, many of whom were now expressing how very thankful they were to be “given permission” to enjoy their practice, and to not hurt themselves. I saw then that a lot of people were having a very different experience with their practice than I was; that not everyone who practiced this yoga – or any kind of yoga – enjoyed their practice was the revelation unfolding for me.
And so eventually I felt the importance of spreading what I considered “the old-school way” – this no-dogma, teach-to-the-individual way of practice that felt so good, that allowed for so much flexibility regarding how an individual will actually manifest/express the practice, and that I could see had so much potential to help people heal and grow and evolve, as I had seen it help me… And I don’t mean to say that these things cannot be found within the “new-school” tradition (with which I really have had no personal experience), or within any other system of yoga – we all just have to find what works for us as individuals. But within the realm of Ashtanga, my beloved and joy-filled “old-school” way and lineage definitely seemed greatly underrepresented, and when I went to workshops with my teacher “out in the world,” there seemed to be many people getting hurt in the “new-school” system and consequently looking for an alternative…
…But now? Now that I feel I no longer even have a place within my “black sheep” of a yoga community (the “black sheep” of the “black sheep,” I suppose – as many in the wider yoga world seem to consider the Ashtangis to be “black sheep” in the first place…)? …Now I’m finding that I don’t feel I care about any of it. Now I only know that I love my practice – which I certainly have not lost, which I am ever-thankful for, and which only seems to be getting stronger and ever more enjoyable as I continue my daily practice on my own, in my home (nothing new to me – home practice, as I have always practiced alone at home outside of the many visits with my teachers). And I find myself continuing to teach simply because I love my students, and they keep coming back for more; and because, yes, I do still enjoy the exchange of energy I experience in the yoga room; and because, yes, this practice has helped me so much that I do feel it’s the right thing to do to share it, if there are others interested in learning it. But… while I certainly have no desire to change anything concerning the particulars of the way I was taught to do or teach this practice in its “traditional, old-school” form… I am finding that I no longer feel like it is important for me to be a representative of the “old-school” way or of my particular teachers and lineage, that I no longer feel the call to make the “old-school” way known and available to a larger population of the Ashtanga-practicing world. Now I just do my little part and trust that everyone will find what they need to find – whatever works for them.
…And now, too, as I write this, I find myself questioning what a “lineage” even means – what it amounts to. A list of people to be remembered and honored and for whom to feel grateful? A spirit or teaching or Guru coming through a line of teachers? Yes, if we are benefitting from a practice, then we are blessed by the sheer existence of the lineage through which it came to us… but do we tend to place too much importance on our ideas or feelings concerning that lineage? …Let’s not forget that the Guru resides within all of us, and if it has not been realized yet, then it is waiting to be discovered, and any teacher should ultimately just be assisting his or her students to find it. …These ideas we get about lineages and this school or that school and what is the “proper” way… these ideas that can so often seem to fracture our communities… what significance does any of it have when compared with the real inner workings of Self-Realization? It all leads to the divine One; and ultimately that everlasting and omnipresent One is all that really matters.
When I read articles like those I have linked above, and get exposed to some of what’s happening in the wider community (which doesn’t happen very often)… it reminds me of why I never liked organized religion, why, as an adult, I never felt to be a part of one. It’s not due to a problem with the Divine itself – or in the case of a system of yoga, with the practice itself, but a problem of, or stemming from… hierarchies, egos, dogmas, human fallibility, perhaps the whole thing just getting too large-scale, etc., etc. Human stories, human problems.
…And I am so thankful that none of that interferes with my actual practice.
What reading these articles/posts also reminded me of – especially as I learned a bit about whom the authors were and saw that they have been practicing and teaching Ashtanga yoga for all these years, despite their withdrawal from the Mysore community and the stories they have now shared… is how I have always seen traditions as living, evolving organisms. Traditions last over vast periods of time because there’s something in them, some root, that consistently works well for the people performing/practicing/using them; but they’re not stagnant. To remain alive – to keep from dying out and eventually becoming forgotten, they must be put into living practice, must manifest through living individuals – and this is why traditions must naturally (though perhaps imperceptibly) evolve – because each individual is unique and humanity is always evolving. Change and evolution seem to be in our nature – it seems that to grow and evolve is what most of humanity is generally here to do. And how can traditions not naturally grow and evolve along with the humans and the cultures that are using them? As we take from them the good they have to offer us and give back to them by keeping them alive and sharing them with others, we meanwhile must also live our unique lives. Whatever we might find to help us in our own healing and growth, whatever we decide to pursue or practice amongst the myriad options now available to so many of us privileged beings, we ultimately have to use the tools we come across in a way that works for us as individuals, in our own personal and perpetual path of evolution, as we all simply find our own way.
…For years I tried my best to teach from the source – to pass on the practice unchanged by trying to learn every minute detail I could – always taking my notes, recording and remembering it all, which teacher said what and when, what of this is coming straight from the mouth of Pattabhi Jois and what is coming from the experience of which one of my teachers (and has that teacher had any other influences outside of pure Ashtanga?)… And always I would reference my source when providing instruction to one of my students – because, after all, who am I? What do I know? Better that it should be coming from a senior teacher, someone “deep in the lineage.” …But when the (unintended) split from my main teacher occurred – or after it occurred, really – after I realized I could not abandon my students, whether or not my main teacher felt I should be teaching… eventually, after some time – and after going through some of my process of grieving the loss, I stopped wanting to reference her, or any other teacher for that matter, so very often, started to want to teach more from my own experience as well as that of my teachers. And I think this, too, is only natural – to want to share our unique selves. As individuals with different life experiences, we all have our own unique offerings. I want to be me and no one else; and I want to share and teach from that place of fully being myself.
We all have personalities, deep-seated beliefs, the myriad experiences of our lives informing us, etc. – all those things that give us our unavoidable subjectivity. Pattabhi Jois was the first teacher through which this particular practice came to us, but any teacher in the following generation, all the teachers who sprang from that source, although they might do their best to teach the way he taught them, to not make any changes but to keep the practice in its “pure” form, from the source… all they have to share will pass to their students through their own filters – how can it be any other way? We can try to keep the practice as “pure” as possible, but to me it seems that our notion of purity is perched precariously atop a slippery slope, that maintaining a tradition’s “purity” can only be a slippery affair, that change (perhaps imperceptible change) is unavoidable as traditions get passed down from one generation to the next. How many details or subtleties get lost in translation – not only in translation from one language or culture to another, in the many circumstances of traditions crossing cultures, but even in the “translation” of one person’s mindset or understanding to another’s? We all have our unique mental filters that all information will pass through – both on its way into and on its way out of us. …And while we take the root of the tradition and we keep it as is; and while we can honor our teachers and continue to teach the way they taught us (for those of us lucky enough to have been taught in a way we found to work well); as we pass something on, as it comes through us, there will also naturally be things we share from what we have learned on our own, through our own practice. Some of the most helpful information my teachers have passed on to me has come to them through their own experience with the practice – not from some acquisition of knowledge from “the source” as Pattabhi Jois, but from “the source” as an inner knowing, an inner experience, “the source” as the Guru within. “Your own practice is your best teacher.” Again, I am thankful that is what I was taught. I still find it as true as ever.
In closing, while I might feel that in the end our lineage is not what is of prime importance – that it’s doing the practice that matters, and the Self-realization that matters, that experience of finding and knowing and living with the Guru within, the Divine One within… I do continue to give thanks after every single practice for my particular teachers, and for the lineage of teachers back to whom I can trace the blossoming of this practice that I’ve been gifted; and here, too, I feel to end by saying, again, that I am so thankful for the school, the teachers, and the community within which and from whom I had the privilege of learning this practice.
Aharona Shackman has used writing as her primary practice for connecting with the Self pretty much since she learned to write. With the commencement of this blog, she is now beginning to practice the sharing of some of her writing...