Dance as if Your Life Depends on It
"Dance, when you're broken open.
Dance, if you've torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance when you're perfectly free."
In 1995, just after the United Nations signed the peace treaty calling for a cease fire in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnian filmmaker Vesna Ljubic, whose image-only film Ecce Homo wordlessly captured four years of living under seige in Sarajevo, came to Seattle and moved in with me and my then girlfriend, Maureen. There are many things I remember about Vesna becoming a part of our world before she would return to Sarajevo, the city where she was born and raised. The city which would later have her say "death was our only joy." Here is what I remember most: fried eggs, a yard sale roll top desk, and learning what it sounds like to hear a war approaching.
I traveled to the Balkans in 1994 to volunteer in refugee camps. There I had the honor of bearing witness to women and their stories of being held against their will in the rape-genocide camps. Back at home in the United States, I became connected to the community of people providing support - in whatever meager way we could - to help Bosnian, Croatian, Muslim and Serbian war survivors. During this time of war, genocide, and terror, as survivors found glimmers of hope, in many ways I found my humanity. But more on this later.
At first when her US sponsor approached us about Vesna living with us, Vesna was still unsure. She didn't know us. She was shy and private. Her health was failing, and she was filled with grief. She was independent - a sophisticated thinker and filmmaker - how could she take a room with a young couple in the states whom she had never met? We wanted for Vesna to feel welcome. We set out to create a space for her we hoped she'd like to share. Maureen and I proceeded with setting up a room, neither of us very good at the domestic in general, not the least of which was decorating. For me, a mattress on the floor and one curtain up can feel like hitting Martha Stewart pay dirt.
There was a yard sale up the street where we found an old and worn roll top desk. We loved it. We paid the $12 and carried it from upper capitol hill home to our apartment on Harrison Avenue. Fingers aching from lugging a piece of furniture clearly not designed for carrying, we both somehow knew in the quiet of the task, that this desk was supposed to be Vesna’s. We placed it in the room beside the bed we had set up for her. When her sponsor called us to say, "She's still not sure", we told her about the roll top desk. That same night, the sponsor called us back. Vesna said: "Tell them I will be there tomorrow." You see, the night before Vesna had a dream in which she wrote the stories of Bosnia while sitting in a small chair at a roll top desk.
The next morning when she walked in our door, we hugged as though the same war that had damaged her hearing, lent to her failing kidneys, and aged her decades beyond her fifty-odd years, had somehow also separated us, though we had never met. There were no words spoken, save my sad attempt at Serbian. She just smiled and laughed - like the smiles of my mother, and my grandmother before her - the same grandmother who had survived war and raised my mother in its aftermath. There is something about women who have survived wars. They are tough from witnessing and facing atrocities; they are gentle because it is required to rebuild.
My knowledge of the beautiful language of the Balkans was limited to "Dobro jutro. Kako set?" Vesna, more educated, existential and worldly than I was at twenty-five, would speak and her words spun like floating thread. She didn't know many english words, but how her artful brain and heart expressed those words was humbling. What she knew - her words and her wisdom - mellifluously reached us.
Not being able to speak much with Vesna was a familiar experience for me. As a child I was lucky enough to have the experience of feeling loved when no words could be exchanged. Twice my mom's mother visited us from Finland, and her brother once. Each morning we would wake, see them and smile. I would try to say, "Good morning. How are you?" in Finnish. My uncle with his piercing shamanic eyes would watch me and my sisters, commenting to my mother on how much my gestures reminded him of their mother. I would smile and say, "Mom, what's Uncle Risto saying?" then smile again, and wave. I was young. It was awkward. He was my mother's brother and we were bonded. They held each other's histories, and my sisters and I could feel those histories, even without words we could understand.
My grandmother grew up during the Russo-Finnish war when everything was scarce; food, heat, clothing... She was one of those great women who, having lived through a war remains careful and frugal as though still being asked to ration, even when resources have become more abundant. I remember my grandmother as the epitome of love and warmth. She would pour one ounce of milk into our huge bowls of breakfast cereal. We'd crush the flakes with our spoons, trying to get them to reach the tiny pool of milk at the bottom. She would stand over our bowls, the box of Post Raisin Bran in her hand with her generous smile and glowing eyes and ask: "Want you more?" We would smile and say "no, thank you Gramma.” We ate dry raisin brain and smiled and waved.
Vesna made us fried eggs and white rice. Maureen and I were vegans. We covered the rice with soy sauce and gulden's spicy mustard, and moved the fried eggs around our plates. We ate the rice, but never the eggs. I'm pretty sure Vesna thought we were anorexic. Years later, my sister Karen had a job working with residents at the Valley Inn - people who struggled with severe mental illnesses, hallucinations and often, substance abuse. They were not always easy to care for, not always easy to love. But Karen did. Yearly, the residents presented my sister with a birthday cake. Without fail, Karen ate her slice of cake, bite by bite, while the residents watched. Karen is a vegan. The birthday cake was not. I asked her about it: She said, “there was no way I couldn't. Being a vegan is about compassion and humanity, and they gave me that gift with the cake.”
Looking back now, I would have eaten those fried eggs, perhaps with just a little extra soy sauce. Opportunities to live into our humanity surround us like bonfires in the cold, it seems. I'm hoping not to miss as many of these opportunities as I have in my first forty years.
"You hear them coming."
Of course I knew she meant the Serbian military. Vesna sat on our futon couch cutting up a pear into thirds, one-third for each of us and said, "You hear them coming."
"What does it sound like?" I asked.
I think I expected to hear that war approaching would sound like bullets, fire, and chaos.
"It sounded like it was our turn."
And because I, despite all of my best efforts, have in me the best and worst of what it is to be an American, I asked the question we Americans ask, "What did you do?"
"Do? ...We made fires...” (She mimicked a bonfire with her arms) “...and then we danced and sang." Almost twenty years later, I imagine this: the sound of knowing it's your turn, the sound of knowing the wait is over.
Vesna and her friends in Sarajevo made a warm fire in the cold Bosnian air and they sang. They danced and they sang. This is what I learned from her on that day in my house: the Serbian military would be here soon enough. Life as we know it would change. This moment won't exist in its current form. And when the war ends - and end it will - Sarajevo will never again be like this. It will never again be the beautiful metropolitan Sarajevo we have built. For those much younger readers, the city of Sarajevo hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. In 1999 when I returned to Bosnia to help women with rebuilding, I was taken to the Olympic stadium. The five rings were still in place, rusted but in place. Below the rings? Rows and rows of white crosses where those murdered during the siege had been buried.
Vesna knew - as do all women who keep the stories of their people - that she and her friends were in that very moment of siege, becoming the history others would read about. "We will be our grandchildren's stories." When she told me this I felt angry. I wanted to say, "But how could you just surrender to it? Why didn't you DO something?" I saw their response as denial. Running through my head the reverberating “What were you all doing? You need to prepare for the onslaught. You need to try to escape, try to get away. You need to be organizing. You need to go to the people currently being attacked and raped and killed and fortify their effort to stay alive, to not be colonized. How can you sing and dance? You need to. You need to. You need to...”
I saw it as trauma-induced: this was not the first war, the first siege that the people of the Balkans had faced. The First Balkan War had been fought by member of the Balkan League-Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro- and the Ottoman Empire. Then there was the conflict and killing during the Second World War. And this, a Third Balkan War? A war which turned 2 million out of 4 million people into refugees, and in which 200,000 people were murdered, and during which a quarter million women were systematically raped. Sonja, the daughter of the architect of the 4-year siege, once told journalist Nick Hawton that "many Serbs simply regarded the 1992-1995 Bosnian war as a continuation of the Second World War, as if there had been just a short interlude between then and now". (History Today, Volume 50, Issue 8, 2009.)
Was this then a surrender to a history that could not be outrun? Would I do the same? I'm certain I wouldn't dance or sing or film. I would act. I would take to the streets. I would fight to my death. But, would I? The playwright Eve Ensler once said that, "500,000 women are raped in the United States every year and there isn't even a war going on." Have I acted? Have I taken to the streets? Have I fought to my death? Or, have I done my share of social justice work and also gone running, to the movies, eaten out at great restaurants, taken trips, done laundry, made love, gotten married, gotten divorced, grieved, moved forward, wrestled with my soul while others have wrested with their daily existence? Haven't I merely lived. And perhaps even with less joy than Vesna and her country men and women. In my home, I have never felt troops approaching my front door. I have never heard the sound of gun fire coming down Morningside Drive in Florence or Harrison Street in Seattle, or the small broken down mill streets of Uxbridge. If I had, would I have danced?
Vesna was dehydrated. Her skin was dry and puckered. Nothing like her eyes. Her eyes glowed. Even in the midst of deafness in one ear, failing kidneys, being displaced from her home, living in the apartment of two women she only knew of from a dream. Even in the midst of what felt like ancient grief, her eyes shone. She was grateful to be alive. "How did you survive?", I asked.
Vesna Ljubic danced and then she filmed. She documented the stories of her people and of lives and a culture torn apart. When the war broke out in the Congo, I signed petitions. I sent money. I outraged on Facebook. I didn't dance.
And here we are twenty years after the siege of Bosnia, nineteen years after the genocide and mass rapes in Rwanda, in the throes of daytime gang rapes in Congo, India, the United States. Either war and violence against women are growing or it is being reported. In either case, it turns out that it may in fact be time to dance. Vesna and her friends around that bonfire having inherited war from their grandparents and great grandparents, knew that to survive you must feel joy, express your humanity and beautifully occupy space. She knew it and while we are busy fighting about pro-choice v. pro - life, Republican v. Democrat, self righteous v. more self righteous, we are contributing to anger culture, to the very culture that war twirls its evil mustache at knowing that we are feeding it, fueling it, growing it. Then we feel shocked and stunned at its emergence. Vesna knew. I, myself knew nothing. But now I get it. After twenty years, thanks to Vesna, my mother, my grandmother, my sisters, and women like Eve Ensler, I get it. It is time to dance.
On February 14, 2013 one billion people across the globe will dance. Simultaneously. We will dance to shift the earth, to physically feel it move under our feet of joy. We will transform ourselves, each other and our culture by occupying the planet that is our home and sending a message: that's quite enough now. No more violence against women. We're all done. We won't retaliate. We're not going to attack you-though sometimes it's all we want to do. We are your antidote. And after the billions of rapes on this planet, we're done.
What does it look like to dance?
I invite you to dance in the way that you dance. On February 14, 2013, I myself won't be dancing in the traditional sense. One, I'm a terrible dancer. Just wretched. Two, I don't love group activities. I organize them and promote them but I'm my mother's daughter, a bit of a loner. Two years ago on New Year's Eve in the jungles of Costa Rica after my beautiful friends were married and with friends and family danced in the new year with joy and abandon, I left the party, stepped into the jungle and sat quietly alone. I made a commitment to my life and the world that I'm working on keeping every day. I promised, though I knew I would falter and fail, to try to live into my humanity and see others in theirs. It was my dance.
What does it look like for the world to dance? I await your brilliance and I offer a few ideas having had the privilege of working in social change these past few decades:
Change a life. It appears after all the talk of big philanthropy ($100 million endowments, going to scale, lifting whole societies up), that changing a life may be the key to lasting joy. It matters to hold someone's hand when they've lost their house in a fire. It matters to listen to the person on the street who is out of work and down on his luck. It matters to walk in someone's shoes before you judge her. It matters to fly halfway around the world and show up even though your'e shaking in your boots. It matters to walk down the street and stock shelves with food for those living without enough food. It matters to read to someone who is sick. It matters to teach someone to read. It maters to be kind instead of trying to get ahead. And when it comes to giving? No more apologizing for not having enough money, influence, reach, education. Who you are and what you have to offer is the untapped key to us living into our humanity. You have kindness, love, heart and a nickel to give. Give it all. It's what is needed. Of this I am certain.
Tell your story. I believe we are the sum total of every story ever told to us. What is your story? Your family's story? The story of your ancestors? I could tell you about Bosnia and it might be an intellectual discussion. But if I tell you about Vesna you may begin to see her city, her country, her people in a different way. You may begin to witness her humanity, compassion and fierce commitment to the world. When we hear each other's stories something shifts. We go back to the oral traditions from which we all come. We see each other. Judgement, if even for a moment lifts. We become witnesses to each other's lives. And it turns out it is much harder to want to ignore or harm someone who has told you their story. Tell your story.
Remind yourself that you are the one you have been waiting for. No doubt about it: each of us is the change agent we've been seeking. How do I know? I have met thousands and thousands and thousands of people in my travels for social change. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things without recognition. Just doing the right thing because it's the right thing to do. I once met a woman in the south of the United States who was asked, "Why do you get up everyday at 4am and start getting as much food as you can for people who are hungry? Wouldn't it be better to work to create the conditions to end hunger?" Her response, "Today I will feed someone. Tomorrow I'll do the same. It matters to feed people. And nothing you or anyone ever says can change that it matters." She was living into humanity and her gifts. She is the change. So are you. You're the secret to unleashing the world we know is possible. It's not they. It's you. You don't have to write a huge check or quit your job and travel to a place where people are going without. You merely need to access your internal warmth, kindness and love and pledge not to withhold it. Just start giving from where you are. Because when you do we will live into what the beautiful author Arundhati Roy has said, "Not only is another world possible. On a quiet day, I can ever hear her breathing."
Pledge to help five who cannot help you. In 2013, offer your support to five people, animals, plants, building, but make it five entities that cannot help you in return. You want to rescue dying plants? Do it. You want to help clean out an abandoned building? Get cleaning. Help a young person who cannot hire you or give you a recommendation. Give your art, poetry, writing, talents to someone who could never afford your gifts. Just give without expectation of return. If we want to counter violence, we need to show what non-violence looks likes. Non-violence, in one form is you and I giving with abandon and joy.
Dance on February 14, 2013 together with 1 billion of your people. Dance and let us together tell our stories, witness each other's lives and feel the best of our humanity. I promise to dance for you and for Vesna and for the stories of joy, possibility and love that are about to be told.
Other articles by Kathy LeMay at Feminist.com:
Excerpt from The Generosity Plan: Sharing Your Time, Treasure, and Talent to Shape the World
Kathy LeMay is the founder, president, and CEO of Raising Change,
which helps organizations raise capital to advance social change agendas and individuals create Generosity Plans to help change the world.
LeMay, who began her global activism in war-torn Yugoslavia where she worked with women survivors of the siege and rape-genocide camps, has been a social change fundraiser for 15 years, raising more than $150 million dollars in the fields of women’s human rights, hunger and poverty relief, and movement-building. In addition she has directed an additional $100 million in philanthropic dollars to organizations working to make a difference. LeMay serves as an adviser and consultant to Fortune 100 companies, universities, international NGOs, and the United Nations. She is a sought-after speaker on strategies for social justice and empowering women to come into their voice.
In the year 2000 LeMay was nominated for a Reebok Human Rights Award for her 15 years of service as a human rights activist. She was named one of Business West Magazine’s “40 Under 40” and, in January 2010, she released her first book, The Generosity Plan, published by Simon & Schuster/Atria and Beyond Words. She is the recent recipient on the 2012 First One Access Award, which honors prominent public figures for their inspirational roles as the first in their families to get a college degree.
Kathy has appeared on numerous television and radio shows including Oxygen TV and The Oprah Show. She is a contributing columnist to World Pulse Magazine, where she also serves as the Board Chair. Kathy has also recently become a member of the Advisory Board at Feminist.com.