Over the past couple of months I've been exploring creativity. It's something that can be present in life every day, and the difference for me lately has been in appreciating it and mindfully absorbing myself in creative activities, including writing and illustrations relating to my work. I've also enjoyed writing new meditations and designing workshops by consciously connecting with creativity. It's amazing how many opportunities to be creative show up, when you are open and curious, including creative ways to bring about awareness and choice in situations however wonderful or challenging they may be.
And lately I have begun to ponder about expression as a distinct element of creativity.
It came to me last month on my first experience of joining a choir, how the words, music, and arrangement of the vocals are all created by someone else, yet the expression is unique for each individual through their voice, emotions, and physiology. From that first evening I was in flow, brought about by the experience of expressing myself through song, in full voice, alongside over 60 others who were doing the same. Looking around the room, there were huge smiles, sparkly eyes, and a buzz of excitement in anticipation of singing together like this every week.
This morning I was sitting listening to a wonderful talk by Tara Brach about love and connection, and I was thinking about expression again. My eyes were drawn to my daughter Mairi's art materials, which she keeps in our living room. They sit there because she often opens her pad and starts sketching away. I love that she chooses to do this at times instead of the temptations of social media or a games console, and she is dedicated to her ambition to study for an art degree.
Mairi has always had a flair for expression, and since the early days of primary school her illustrated stories have been written in a style and standard well beyond her years. In fact, one of her teachers said she looks forward to seeing a book written by Mairi sitting on a shelf in a bookshop. What a great way to inspire a young person!
A recent example is a history essay where she put herself in the shoes of a young African girl who was traumatically separated from her family and taken into slavery. She has given me permission to share this below and I've published it exactly as it was written. I am biased because I'm her Mum (!), but I think it's astounding the gift she has for bringing the story to life through skilful, evocative expression and thoughtfulness about (as far as anyone can imagine) what the experience may have been like.
The illustration is by Mairi too, and I think adds to the expression beautifully.
Slavery essay written by Mairi Bell on 26 September 2017, age 13
"I remember everything all too clearly. The screams, the colour of the flames. The smell of the cargo hold. I don't understand how a man can do that to someone else, never mind a whole village. My name is Tamala, and im 15 years old. This is my story.
I was stolen from my home. The place I cared about the most, never allowed to return in my own terms. Did I deserve this? No. No one does. Not even the most cruel person in the world. Maybe, not even the white men.
It was late. The stars sparkled in the sky like fireflies, as i took one last glance up to the skies before heading to sleep. The night sky was beautiful, to me. Endless dark, calm, no one to bother you. Though, it would get lonely. I'd never be lonely. My family was here with me. My friends. Everything was silent. Almost no noise, but the locusts in the bushes. Then, nothing. Silenced. The locusts made no sound. Why? They were usually so . . . Alive at night. Then there were new sounds. Twigs snapping. Heavy breathing. Whispers. And now once again, silence. I simply ignored it. The quiet sound of the locusts beginning to chirp again reassured me, and slowly, i drifted to sleep.
Only a few minutes later, I think, I woke, startled, confused, gasping for breath. I could hear nothing but the crack of flames, and a few people screaming. I had no idea what was happening. As quickly as I could, I got up. Half asleep, i did not understand that these flames surrounding me meant any danger whatsoever, until my mother screamed my name. She had been up before me, because she was not in our hut, but running in from outside. She would not stop panicking. " . . .Tamala!" She was out of breath. "You must hide! White men! They are here! Go into the forest, I'll follow" White men. Here. In our village, our home. Where we were safe. Not anymore. I ran out into the searing heat of family homes burning to ashes around me. Screams. Cries. I was now fully awake, as i scanned the area for the invaders. Nothing. "Mother," I say. "We cannot leave! Our people need help, so we must help them!"
"You don't understand. The white men, they're taking people! Killing those that fight, or capturing people that try to run. They're threatening to kill us if we don't obey. We must go!" People were panicking all around us. Screaming. Crying. Running. I could see it now; two or three white men with guns. Other men were helping them. They carried ropes and torches, as well as their weapons. A thought hit me. "Where is father?" An expression of panic and dread filled my mothers eyes. She was looking around, as if expecting him to emerge from the flames and take us away from here. To someplace safe. But right now, nowhere could feel safe. Then she looked at me. "We have to go. I don't want to, but we must," tears fell from her eyes. She wanted to know father was alive. We could hear sounds of fighting behind the walls of fire, and i knew deep down I'd never see him again. Mother was looking at me as if i was the only thing left in the world. "Please," she whispered. I hesitated.
"Ok. Go, now!" We ran to the trees. We passed people I knew, and grew up with. People I had known my entire life. None of that mattered now. They had to run, or face whatever the white men wanted. I ran, following in the footsteps if my mother. Then, we were clear of the huts and the fire. Relief flushed through me. Then dread. What next? Where would we go? I stopped. Stood still. My mother turned and looked back at me. "Tamala?" She said. She opened her mouth to speak again, but then a rope net was thrown over her head. She shrieked, "No! Tamala! Run!" I turned to sprint back to the trees, but one of the men was in my way. He grabbed me, and i struggled, tried to get away, but it was too late. Heavy ropes were tied painfully tight around my burned wrists. He pushed me down, and tied my ankles at a length that i wouldn't be able to run, but still walk. I saw the burning silhouette of my home behind me, then I was pulled to my feet, and shoved toward the trees.
The ropes that held me were joined with the ropes of other men and women from other tribes. We had been walking in a coffle for almost a week now, but it could've been more, or less. It was hard to tell. My feet had sores, i think, because it hurt like wasps constantly stinging my soles. My face was dry with my past tears, I was unable to wipe them away with my hands bound. My wrists were raw with the ropes rubbing against my burns, and my binds were red with blood. Huge wooden restraints attatched our necks together. We were constantly whipped when we walked too slow, or too fast, and when one of us fell, we all did, and we were whipped for that, too. I had no care at all for myself. My father was probably dead and i hadn't seen my mother since i was captured. I just wanted to see their faces. I had to know they were ok. All i could do now was stare at my feet and walk, or face the consequences. We had apparently almost five weeks of walking left, and i couldn't bear the thought of that pain. But still, I had to endure. I had to survive.
Five and a half weeks later, we arrived at a beach, where a large wooden ship was aground. It was well over twenty times the size of our village canoes, which were probably embers right now. Large wooden cages made of tree branches and bamboo held people, people like me. From villages like mine. Stolen away from their friends, their family. Everything that mattered. There were hundreds. The men and women were separated. How long had they been here? Did they know anyone here? Were they like me, parents missing, home destroyed, everything they had, gone? I couldn't think like that. It wasn't helping.
We were herded into one of the cages. The people already in them shrank away from the door, trying to be invisible. I began to feel scared. I only really just realised how big this was, when i saw these other prisoners and the looks on their faces. Sure, i had been terrified. But it died down as we walked, my mind was focusing on the pain. But now, i really was terrified. What would happen to me? Would they kill me? What did they want?
We all sat, cramped, for hours. Days. It seemed like an eternity. More and more captives were marched in every day, there mustve been at least two hundred or so. It was horrible. We were all dirty, and the cuts on our bodies stung with the sweat that seeped into them. We could hardly move, and my wrists were still burned, from the fire and the rope, and were showing not much signs of healing. We sat for two days, I think, until we were dragged - and I'm being literal when i say dragged - out of our cage. We were lined up and inspected, and they separated the men from the women. They tied the men in chains and the women in rope, and we were marched in groups onto the ship, and the captain looked us all up and down, frowning. I heard him say "is this really the best we can do? These men look useless, and the women more so." I clenched my fists. I was not useless. But truthfully, i felt useless right now. I was helpless in my binds, i couldn't even run.
Then he said "how much would we get for them? Imagine how much worse they'll be when we get to America. They look terrible now, how are we going to make a profit?" Profit? They were selling us! To who? And why? I felt even worse. My stomach lurched as we were separated from the men and forced down some stairs into a long room with wooden shelves. It was huge, and there was just enough room for all of us. We were tied onto shelves, with just enough room to move about. It was still extremely cramped, and difficult to breathe well in such a tight space. I hoped we wouldn't be here for long.
It's been a week. I've heard some of the crew saying we have about five weeks to go, and frankly I don't think i can make it even three days. We are literally rolling around in our own filth. We are washed once a day, because the men want us to be 'clean' so we don't kill each other with diseases. They say clean, but its more 'lets throw sea water on the prisoners, that'll make them clean!'. As if. The salt just stings and burns our cuts. I think i have infections in most of them, because they weep more than they should. While water is being thrown at us, people clean our shelves. I suppose its better than nothing, but it would appear that they think throwing sea water over everything cleans it. No. It really doesn't. We get fed once a day, but it is hardly 'food'. It's like oats and rice mixed together, when they're feeling generous. Its disgusting. I haven't had a real meal in, what, seven weeks? All the energy i have is basically going into breathing, because that's pretty much all i can do down here.
Every day, we're hauled up on deck to be cleaned and exersized. It's not really exersise though. Just jumping about for hours on end. When we're brought back below deck, it's only a couple of hours until a few unlucky women are 'assigned' to one of the crew for the night. Its disgusting, how all the prisoners are treated like we're not even living creatures, never mind humans. Some people have actually tried to jump overboard. Some have succeded. I can't say I've never thought about it.
I can't sleep well on this ship. It moves so much, and it scares me to know that there's not any land within sight. But there will be. Eventually. I just want this to end. The sleepless nights, the salt in my cuts, the filth that I'm lying on. The loneliness. The wondering if my family is even alive.
I want to go home.
I cried myself to sleep that night. And many other nights. Everyone did. They were as lonely as me, surrounded by people you feel you don't have the right to talk to. You feel you don't have the right to do anything. You don't really feel like a person anymore.
Seven weeks and three days. I counted each day that went past. That's how long the voyage was. I don't know how I'm alive, because several people had died in the first four weeks. It was the biggest relief i have ever had to be back on land. But five minutes made me realize that this was it. We had arrived in America, and we were being paraded through the markets by the white men. People from our coffle were being sold, we kept getting stopped by traders. This place had an energy that felt wrong. None of these people being sold want that. Some of them are younger than me, and they will grow up as slaves. We don't deserve this. Have we done something wrong? Are we being punished? I don't understand. People are selling other people like they're objects. I felt lost. Then a man walked up to us. The white men started bartering with him, then he turned and pointed directly at me. Fear swept over me. Was he buying me? Why? A second later one of our guards came up to me and released my neck from the coffle. The ropes tied to me were handed to the man, and he handed them something and shook their hands, but i couldn't see what it was. This was it. My heart beated faster than it ever had before.
I was nothing now. I was an item, to be bought and sold, to whoever payed the highest. I was pushed through the crowds for half an hour before being thrown onto a cart full of other slaves. Their eyes seemed empty and emotionless. They had given up. Maybe I should, too. We started to move almost as soon as i was on, and I took one last look into the crowded market. It was full of people like me. People who no longer cared if they lived or died, for they knew they were nothing more than an object to these people. My eyes scanned the crowd. Slaves were everywhere. People were everywhere. And somehow, out of all the crowds, my eyes caught sight of one person in particular. And she was looking straight at me.
It was my mother. She was alive.
And I would never see her again."