Refracting Temple performance, September 26, 2012. Image Courtesy of the artist.
Last Wednesday, I approached the front door of a pretty house on a peaceful tree-lined street in New York and tapped softly. "Who am I to be doing this?" I thought. I cleared my throat and knocked more audibly.
Following a quiet rumble of footsteps, a cheerful woman named Ruth welcomed me inside with kind eyes and a smile mellow as Mona Lisa's. Upon entering, I found myself in a spacious living room scattered with little sun droplets dancing joyfully over comfy, attractive furnishings. Instinctively, I removed my shoes, not because I sensed an overly-fastidious air, but rather because, well... this was holy ground. Welcome to the world of Restore.
Restore NYC is a recognized pioneer in the fight against sex trafficking in New York City. Its groundbreaking residential program features the first and only long-term safehouses dedicated to the needs of foreign-national survivors of sex trafficking in the Northeast.
When I first approached Restore with a request to pray over their new safehouse as a part of my current 90-day performance art piece, I feared the inquiry would be dismissed as irreverently eccentric. After all, who would expect a matter of conceptual and pragmatic seriousness such as a safe haven for survivors of sexual slavery to mingle with the wildness and whimsicality of performance art? Fortunately for me, the folks at Restore possess not only a liberal imagination, but also a sophisticated understanding of the unique breakthroughs that art can facilitate in a client's intensive healing process. Restore provides a kaleidoscopic array of therapeutic modalities, including yoga and art therapy, to help ensure that the traumatized women who come to them have a real chance at wholistic restoration and hope for a new, empowered life.
After a brief tour of the decidedly warm and beautiful house -- which, thanks to the vision of the founder, Faith Huckel, is very much a "home" -- I was presented with a crimson box wrapped in a blood-red satin bow. I delicately untied the bow and lifted the lid to discover an inscription upon its inside. It read simply, "Believe." Within the box, I discovered countless prayer requests written by the residents penned mostly in a foreign language, each one folded with deliberate symmetry. I felt completely bewildered by the residents' utter generosity and openness in cooperating with my desire to pray for them.
One by one, I read through the detailed requests, collecting insights that helped guide my prayers over the house. I then proceeded room by room, progressing as though through a large body. Within the lower regions of the house, I found myself praying over the most obvious of needs: community and belonging, sustenance and warmth, the development of professional skills...
The living room features a functional, white marble fire place, providing a vivid metaphor of the body's core. I assumed child's pose before it, placing my forehead on the floor: "Bless this hearth as a place for the kindling of the prema agni, (Sanskrit for the "fire of divine love" within the body). Stoke each woman's deepest fire anew as she gathers in this place of refinement. Ignite her passion for life and give her strength for the journey ahead."
The kitchen/dining area features a grand wooden table surrounded by wide bench seating. I laid the side of my face and my upper body over the table, arms outstretched in an embrace: "Flood this place with the spirit of communion. May it provide the finest forms of nourishment -- for the body, for the mind, for the heart and for the spirit."
The sunroom serves as both office and meeting place for residents and their therapists. I sat on the homey couch in a cross-legged position, taking the Buddha mudra (a classic receptive gesture in which the left hand rests palm up in the right hand): "May this place of heavy-lifting be filled with light and lightness as new life skills, focus and robust relationships are richly cultivated."
As I ascended to the home's upper regions containing the bedrooms and washrooms, I was drawn to pray over concerns of a more psychological nature, such as feelings of shame, depression, confusion and fear.
I knelt outside the bedroom doors, pressing my hands and forehead into the doors' wooden surfaces, whispering, "Make this a place of rest and peace. Bless each woman's ability to dream a new dream of life. May shame and anxiety be refused entry through this door." I was reminded of one resident's prayer request for freedom from terrorizing depression and her desperate desire to end the pain of a life stripped and ravaged. This prompted me to state the following request: "Please guard each precious woman against the ravenous spirit of suicide. Surround each woman in a protective blanket of the truth that she is dearly loved. Illuminate every corner of this space with light. Shine most brightly on the darkest of nights."
At last, I approached the quiet retreat of the washroom. I was struck by how a space reserved for the most common and base of actions is also the most monastic of the entire house. At the end of my meager petitioning for restoration of lives in such incomprehensibly difficult circumstances, I felt the weight of my own barrenness... The bathroom was comfortable and serene, with a generous shower and a whirlpool bathtub. As I peered at the shower head, I was reminded of Rainer Maria Rilke's words, "O tireless giver, holy cataract, conductor of the inexhaustible One..."(1) I then stepped into the bathroom and stood beneath the shower head with my arms raised and palms upward facing: "Make this a place of clarity and wisdom, a place of vision and inspiration. May spaciousness and freedom prevail in this sanctuary. Bless this as a place of extreme self-care and ritualistic love. Buy back every tear that has been shed and transform each one into free-flowing, cleansing water." These words mystified me as I uttered them. My gaze fixed on the damp washcloth dangling from the shower handle. I was equally overwhelmed by the thought of the immeasurable amount of healing required as I was by the idea of a power able to administer a regeneration in the wake of such profound suffering.
As my own body begins to cleanse at a more intensive cellular level by way of the extended fast for my 90-day True Light performance, having the opportunity to realize the deeper purpose of the state which is activated by this process is a true privilege. I am profoundly indebted to the Restore community for the gift of their trust and generosity over the past week. Please consider supporting their crucial work in helping to rebuild women's lives, from the ground up. To learn more, please visit www.restorenyc.org.
(1) Paterson, Don. Orpheus: A Version of Rilke's Die Sonette an Orpheus. London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 2006. P. 45.