Tag Archives: faculty residency

Rituals of Restoration


Susan James, 2015.

When spirit enters these rituals of restoration a kind of cultural alchemy can temporarily cook what is raw, unite what is divided, give meaning to what is chaotic, and thereby enchant, refresh, and reanimate all participants. It is this experience of negotiated cohesion through dialogue leading to a shared feeling of grace that is sought in a theory of restoration. Knowing how to create such rituals is the special expertise of healers, curanderas, griots.

–Helene Shulman Lorenz, This Bridge We Call Home, 2002.

I arrived at the Tobago Centre after a relatively recent relocation from the east coast to the west coast of the US and a new position in the academy where I wrestle with feelings of estrangement in my navigation of some unfamiliar, and other all too familiar, terrain. To enter the Tobago Centre is to encounter a sense of, and an unspoken commitment to compassion with one another with a “shared feeling of grace.” Within our egbe (group of spiritual companions) one is in the constant company of friends and spirit, organized by Orisha traditions and orchestrated by Iya M. Jacqui Alexander’s meticulous skill and openheartedness in teaching by demonstration, conversation and participation. I had not realized the full meaning of the intimate connections among Land, Waters, Orisha divinities and our ancestors, and the timeliness of my own visit. However, the journey toward that realization began almost immediately. With Iya’s careful attention, I settled into a new country, culture, cuisine, and renewed spiritual practice with such ease that the idea of adjustment is really not applicable. Bay leaf infused coffee, evening bush tea, pommecythere with salt and hot pepper, fresh guava juice and morning papaya, local fish purchased from fisherman, morning bacalao with coconut bread, Tobago style pepper sauce, and an occasional fish pie became joyful and delicious routines. Morning and evening meditation opened and closed the day, yet in one sense time itself was otherwise elusive, and almost irrelevant. Our daily rituals of chores, errands, offerings, tending, planting, swimming, devotion, prayers, song, meals, and always-meaningful inquiry with one another about how we were feeling, uncovered a yearning for these cohesive “rituals of restoration” that Shulman Lorenz speaks of. Nine coins placed in my hand to leave as an offering to Oyá at the marketplace; ocean spray reaching over our heads and soaking our faces on the steps near Swallows beach during an offering to Yemayá; calling mo’juba, the ancestral prayer to request the presense of spirit and ancestors, and regular libations to Eshú, seeking permission to cross the entrance onto the Land; the exquisite mandala of nine grains for Babalu Ayé that greeted me on his feast day, the sunflowers we planted at the riverside and libation of honey for Oshún, with dreams of her revitalization were all lived manifestations of spirit in these “rituals of restoration,” and devotion – rituals of restoring spirituality, ancestry and collectivity, all of which seeped through me in ways that were subtle, raw, acute, and not immediately detectable. My experiences amounted to a process of un-layering, and undoing that eventually revealed a way of dwelling that was the most fulfilling I have ever known.

Also true of the wider Centre life, no matter our location; whether seated on giant leaves at the river bank while a Blue Food festival erupted behind us, or on the rocks along the shoreline at Castara on a day when the ocean was too turbulent to enter; or while assembled around the weighty iron planting table to lift and move it across the yard to everyone’s disbelief (except Iya), or gathered at Ngozi’s to experience Charleston’s hypnotic private piano concert; on a search for the spring water spigot in the rain forest, or a hike to find a particular plant species, or around the dining table after a meal to which we all contributed, we engaged fervently in wide ranging, meaningful dialogue that affirmed our collective experience. Within our egbe, in true oral tradition, or testimonio, we discussed local, US and global politics, the anticipated verdicts from Ferguson and Staten Island, the trauma of eurocentrism, the manipulations of “diversity” efforts in the US, along with spiritual knowledge systems, and of course our families and personal lives, and yes, life in the academy. A series of evenings were devoted to lessons from Odu Ifá that Iya taught over several days. Our discussion of the text extended long into the evenings, and often continued the next morning. I loved the feeling of meshed solidarity in our exchanges, without the need for legitimization that can accompany professional discourse, and will remember them as possibly the most engaging of my lifetime.

It feels as if I have entered a time, perhaps an age where the kind of “cultural alchemy” generated by The Centre is called for, to “enchant, refresh, and reanimate” ways of living that foster ecological sustainability, justice and connectedness to counter pervasive globalization, multi-level violence and devastation increasingly waged against communities and ecosystems worldwide. It was with some sense of my own need for a shift, and deepened learning that I sought residency at the Tobago Centre, carrying with me a recessed thinking about the development of a 21st Century psychological paradigm that acknowledges the theories and practices within the discipline that have reproduced violence and suffering, in order to develop a framework that generates epistemologies that are restorative, reparative and recuperative. I imprecisely imagined that such a paradigm where “spirit enters,” to include ways of knowing that have been marginalized and silenced by systems of domination, yet survived, and carry sophisticated technologies, expressed through ritual, and are highly functional in cultures throughout the world, considering the African diaspora in particular. For those of us who are called in this direction, our challenge is to find those who are willing to teach the intricacies of spiritual practice.

“Knowing how to create such rituals is the special expertise of healers, curanderas, griots.”

Residency at the Centre provided the conditions and support for my ideas to take root, and Iya’s daily teachings organically displayed many of the ingredients for, and tools with which to build this vision, both technically and pedagogically. What I did not anticipate was that they would also evoke an intense unfolding of personal awakening and a profoundly emotional rupture that is still resonant months after my return.

I could not predict the shock and feelings of utter disorientation, heartache, and at times revulsion that would accompany my return to the US after a little over two months. The cold in NY, Christmas holiday consumption, and frenetic pace toward personal satisfactions of all kinds felt like an unmanageable onslaught. At the same time that “feeling of grace” found its way back inside of me, and I would soon uncover benevolent surprises, courageous empathy, allies of legend, unforeseen openings and glimpses of a divinity I thought left behind. What is also true is that I left Tobago not with a feeling of departure from a welcomed experience, but with the feeling of being torn away from a familiar comfort, a remembered home place, perhaps a refuge, and not for the first time.

I have a sustained a commitment to the Centre and Iya’s vision for its development and continue to offer support in any way that is useful. I offer immeasurable gratitude and deep reverence to Iya for her generosity in teaching by example, how to weave the sacred in all aspects of life, and live in spiritual devotion and dedication to a purpose. I also thank you for opening space for reflection, sharing personal insight and correction, and for your consistent inquiry and expressed caring about how I experienced each moment of my time in Tobago.