Armenia Day Nine: Seeking Comfort Outside My Comfort Zone

Seeking-comfort-outside-my-comfort-zone-in-Gyumri-Armenia

 

Where do I begin?

Oh, right, I begin where I am, in a small warm room in a B&B on Rustavelli Street in central Gyumri, in Armenia, that is where I am this evening. While America prepares for the Presidential Election tomorrow, I am tucking in for the night; the pink walls of this room turn a bit blue in the fluorescent light. My wool socks are drying on the bathroom radiator, the kind up on the wall, which if you are chilled and lonely,
can bring a measure of what you need…especially if what you need is comfort.

Comfort ye my people.

This is not a tour with a rock band where there are colleagues around to split a beer after the show. This is not a theatre tour where you spend your off nights at the wardrobe captain’s home having a home-cooked meal you will never forget.
No, this is an artist residency in a city where night falls at 6:30, the wood stoves and small fires on the streets burn (…trash? I cannot tell) to bring a haze that would halo streetlights if there were some on this street.

So I move in to my room to listen to music, watch last night’s John Oliver on YouTube, and eat pizza for dinner, please hold the ketchup, and prepare for tomorrow’s teaching. There is something to a long evening in a room not your own. There is something even more to a long string of evenings in a room not your own, a pattern that develops that I notice brings me comfort.

Gyumri laundry

Like the small maple syrup jar of Dr. Bronner’s soap I brought to wash my undies and socks out. Laundry brings me comfort in a way I had not fully appreciated before. It is my little daily duty that rinses off the day’s dust and sets me up for clean socks when they are finally dry, like the day after tomorrow.

Music brings me comfort. Dancing alone on a woven rug, waiting for the right moment to eat my pizza, thinking about the day, about the women I am working with, the fact that tomorrow is the final day of the New Illuminations workshop-this thing I have prepared for fervently-while listening to Norah Jones and Bonnie Raitt makes me breathe easier, moves my body in ways I can’t quite find out on the cobbled or dirt streets.

My stack of Green Vibrance packets of powdered veggies comfort me, as do my little container of Umeboshi plums. Both support my digestion enough so that my Armenian bread based diet, with side dressings of elixirous apricot everything, fuels me enough. Though, if I struggle to fall asleep at night, it is usually because I am a little hungry. Oh for a lick of almond butter. I ate a banana the other day and it felt as odd as eating a shoe. The shape was familiar but the taste has nothing to do with this place at all. Food brings me comfort, but not like going down to the kitchen to have a cup of tea and a handful of graham crackers does at home. Food, a ritual of eating at my little desk or out on a bench in the last sunlight, if I get to it that early, is comforting.

 

I am way out of my comfort zone here, away from my people, my usual ways of yoga and walks and my husband and kids and our street and our town, and even our country, that country over there across the water which seems on the verge of something I am far away enough not to feel viscerally.

What I feel viscerally is the need to care for myself while teaching, while carrying out the vision that coalesced before me last March on my first trip to Gyumri, Armenia. This quest, a spiritual one you could say, because this is not your average tourist attraction, but an internally provoked curiosity to see if I could offer something deeply nutritional to a group of women artists who survive on fumes here, little community among them, all in varying levels of survival in a difficult city with few public services, like snow plowing or trash pick-up. There is no “nicer” neighborhood here in Gyumri, where you’d go to get a sorbet and a haircut if you could afford it. The main city, Yerevan, is two hours, which might as well be 10, and one long narrow pitted road away. One of my students rode the train to be in this workshop this week. Her train car had no heat. It is nearly winter here. She arrived anyway, because what New Illuminations offers is worth her discomfort and I am happy to have her.

I am teaching a group of 15 luminous Armenian women a four-day workshop in which we are making two hand bound books. Some arrive by bus from outlying villages. Most live here in Gyumri. None have taken a workshop like this before. A few have made very simple books. None have made paste papers before or played with the materials I have brought like a big stack of stencils and lots of paper tape.

Truly, I seek to reconnect this group of women to the ancient and Armenian treasured tradition of hand made manuscripts. Our books however, will be different. Not crafted by monks living in stone monasteries high in the Armenian mountains, no, these books are made of painted papers, sewn together by singers, sculptors, painters, poets, students, mothers, at least one pregnant artist, and one tattoo artist.

We have gathered for three days so far, every day touching on the tools for a daily creative practice like personal narrative writing, body movement, mindfulness centering, and intentional creativity. Yes we are making books. We are also making a new home for new ideas for this group of people who handle a patriarchic society in a daily way that I can only witness as a guest.

 

I had coffee with a brilliant man the other evening, an artist, whose work reflects his integrity and devotion to Armenian tradition, easily 30 years younger than me. We enjoyed a long talk about books and art and Armenia. But he pressed me about why I only want to teach women and what is so bad about their lives here anyway? Then he said something that I have a hard time living with. He suggested that the archetypal Armenian woman is strong. And silent.

I knew then that I had taken the correct path here to Gyumri, directly in to the heart of a culture that does not value women’s stories, that sees the ideal woman as someone who handles the family and home, perhaps a job outside the home also, and meets the many cultural expectations, quietly. Silently.

 

I mentioned this in the workshop today.

It struck a vein of truth. My women nodded at in such a way that I knew I had to just let it live among us, the possibility of living differently even here, even now, as artists, giving voice to our stories in ways that do not endanger or threaten, but simply glow from within, because they have been noticed, recognized and drizzled on to a clean piece of paper, an inner hieroglyphic that spells truth for the artist.

In that studio space, generously donated by a supporter of this project, I find a comfort that even warmth cannot provide. It is a wilder kindling of unity with a circle of women, some of whom I may never see again. The distances between our daily lives shorten to nothing. One needs a needle, I find it for her. Another needs me to listen, and I do.

I brought my own soap and woolies; I brought my vitamins and jammies. But mostly, I brought my devotion to daily creative practice and a heart that has been broken open to the need for connection that we all seek, which I seem to have the ability to instigate in community.

These hours alone in my pinkish bluish room with the promise of breakfast hours away are made more palatable, more navigable because of what I have been doing all day long. Telling you about it sustains me even further.

 

Wherever you are in the world today, if you are reading this from Ultsira or Pasing, from Sheffield or Williamsburg, reach in to your daily practice and strike a light for me today. Just hold steady women. Hold steady and know I am holding with you. These long lonely evenings will pass. I will jet home. And these women, warmed by New Illuminations, lightened, I hope, inspired I pray, and comforted in all the ways our common making does, will live on here.

May this making be a blessing in their lives. For it certainly is so in mine.

 

 

Much love to you each.

Thank you for reading me here.

xo,

S

 

Keep your ears tuned to NPR’s 51% on Thursday November 10 for an interview I did with Adriane Dunne before I left.

New here and want to know more about New Illuminations? Stop over here. xoS

 

 

 

 

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Showing 27 comments
  • Evelyn Asher

    Suzi,

    I am overwhelmed, yet overjoyed, hearing about the efforts you students made by train and roads they traveled that might have us turn back. I know see all those exquisite hands, so busy, nurtured creativity, your touchstones of home, and peace you design as you keep yourself in the moment in Armenia. Safe travels. I have thoroughly enjoyed each post and am eager to hear the segment on NPR. I LOVE your new profile with boots made for walking.

    • Suzi

      And that’s just what they’ll do! Those are my favorite shoes ever, Evelyn and I had to decide not to take them on this trip, though they’d be perfect for the streets. Today was amazing Evelyn. Your love beams struck! xoxoS

  • Jennie Benjamin

    Thank you Suzi. Holding tight to our collective expression as women. Make-on sister. With love and admiration.

    • Suzi

      Thank you Jennie! It is easier knowing you all circle with me, all these invisible forces of love in and amongst us. xoxoxoS

  • Brece

    Good morning, dearest Suzi,

    Golden light sprinkles on the frosty ground this morning. Just as your golden, pink & blue light sparkles on us. I gobbled up your post, soaking in the details and feeling what it must be like for you over there. Lucky–both for you and for those women. All of you working hand in hand. Today, we will elect the first female American President. A big deal. Just as your act of taking bookmaking to these women is. Keep strong. Keep warm. I will keep you in my thoughts all day. Shine forth, dear friend. xo Brece

    • Suzi

      Hope your cake baking went well today Brece! Today was intense, 15 women sewing Coptic stitch for the first time, but ripple after ripple completed, then turned to help each other. At one point I watched from a quiet corner, them all focussed sewing. It was awesome. Love to you too! xoS

  • Lois

    THIS! Opening women to themselves, to one another, and to the practice of finding meaning in their every day lives is extraordinary. You are amazing, Suzi. (As is your art.)

    • Suzi

      Thank you Lois! How wonderful to hear from you. Sending miles of love from here. xoS

  • janet

    Reading and reveling in your report from under the covers with my dog, where I retreated to write after shooing everyone off to their day [creative practice + snuggling. Multitasking!]. In Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she described the shock of seeing a banana in the midst of her year of eating locally as comparable to stumbling across a Manolo Blahnik stiletto in the tomato patch. So I hope your banana was a good shoe, anyway. Loving your reports and sending love and blessings on your work from the chilly home front.

    • Suzi

      You know I played with sock (too salty) or a few other things but the shoe, she did fit. I loved A,V,M and that image must have stayed in my mind. Stay warm under there. Janet. Tucking in this evening in hopes of really good news from the US in the morning. Love, S

  • Darby

    You are forever changed, Suzi…..and….the lives of the women you have touched are as well. There is a shalom between you that is now a bond, the tinsel strength of which cannot be measured.

    Please get the story of the tattoo artist. How daring and courageous a profession in a country that strives to silence the voices of women.

    • Suzi

      I will Darby. And will post her extraordinary book. Much love to you! xoS

  • Nancy

    What extraordinary love and beauty

    • Suzi

      Thank you Nancy! oxS

    • Suzi

      Thank you Nancy! Much love right back to you, S

  • Sue

    blessings abound for the circle of sisters, may we each find joy as we share our creative practices with one another
    “an ounce of truth benefits like a ripple on a pond” – Nikki Giovanni
    love and light

    • Suzi

      Thank you ClaraSue, for that quote. Nikki Giovanni was the first poet I chose to read as a high schooler. That goes right in my journal! All my love from here. xoS

  • Nancy Moon

    Beautiful everything, friend. What a journey and what a contribution to each other. much love from connecticut

    • Suzi

      Moon, do you have a white pantsuit on today? Love to you! xoS

  • Tasha

    Suzi you are so brave and beautiful! All of us who’ve been watching your journey from afar are so proud of you and this amazing thing you’re doing. I am sending lots of love your way this morning.

  • Tania

    Suzi, sending love to your quiet night room and your light-filled heart-flooded days–what beautiful work you are doing…just today moving my keyboard, two of your hand-painted prompts floated out–“lights a lamp” and “a cross breeze” and I thought the two phrases dovetail so beautifully with your idea about encouraging the inner light to glow inside of the women you meet–as here. You are truly a lamplighter, and nurturing forth inside every woman you touch “an inner hieroglyphic that spells truth for the artist”…love this post and love you something fierce.

  • Irene

    Suzi, Your soul’s journey and purpose are inspirational. Thank you for shining your gentle light on the forms of sisterhood half way round the world at this pivotal moment in our collective history.

  • teresa

    “to see if I could offer something deeply nutritional to a group of women artists who survive on fumes here,”

    Feed on, good chef.
    Your words from a world on the other side nourish us all.

    Especially soothing to my Nov. 8th nervous belly.
    sending love and light held steady,
    Teresa

  • Safara

    Suzi so beautifully detailed and bold, quiet listening and living it all in the same breath. I was delighted for ume plums that have made their travel with you. How these women have their place with you. It’s a day of my life reading this and hearing election news it’s women finding voice, it’s you studying and keeping the sacredness of the process you are engaging with them. Asking them to consider their role in society truths are being shared. Between slices of orange, pizza and the estranged banana where flavored remain a stranger to you. It’s so purposeful. So proud of you. Of light, S.

  • Ginny

    Suzi, as I type this, the votes are still being counted, I’m holding my breath, biting my nails, and yet I became totally absorbed in this story you are sharing about these brave and remarkable women gathering from near and far to make art, to bond, and to support one another. There is such beauty here. Thank you for this. Thank you for helping these women find their voice. Every woman who does so can change the world. xoxo Ginny

  • Ann

    This is a remarkable story and the book covers your new friends are creating are truly beautiful. Laundry is the familiar, wherever we go – thank goodness. It’s outside of place and time really. You have stretched way beyond your comfort zone Suzi. An inspiration. There is a saying from somewhere that goes “comfort is the cemetery of the Soul” – so you have no worries on that one!

  • Karen Arp-Sandel

    Dear Suzi, What beauty you have created with your Armenian Artists! I am writing this to you on Nov 9, after the excitement and sadness of the most wrenching election I can remember. I am glad you are empowering women, because women everywhere need empowerment. How do we seek comfort? Even after listening to Hillary’s inspirational speech today, I can tell you the whole USA feels like a big Discomfort Zone. Acts of light and beauty, like you are generating there, are the sustaining actions that will draw us forward here, once our tears have dried. Art is activism. Life is art. And Art is not Separate. What better way to connect our souls than beside the warm fire of the creative muse that glows in each and everyone of us? Perhaps that flame is the one that illuminates the Discomfort Zone , fueling our highest vision. Stay brave. Nourish this—“a heart that has been broken open to the need for connection that we all seek, which I seem to have the ability to instigate in community.” And as always thanks for your beautiful words.
    Outside my discomfort zone, too.
    Karen xo