It is my honor to introduce you to Betsy Blankenbaker, a filmmaker, humanitarian and founder of the House of Loveness. Qoya's first service retreat in Zimbabwe will be this December 2011 to support the children and work of the House of Loveness. Read Betsy's beautiful post below on how the healing power of music and movement can transform us in an instant.
Each time I go to Zimbabwe there is an opportunity to
journey deeper into a connection with my humanity.
-House of Loveness founder Betsy Blankenbaker
Three years ago on my first trip to Africa, I found myself in the depths of grief as I landed in Zimbabwe to the news that the baby I was to adopt, Loveness, had died. I had arrived in Zimbabwe that day thinking I would hold her for the first time and instead I spent the next week arranging to bury her. I went from joy to sadness in an instant.
I went straight from the airport to the local hospital where Loveness had been ‘living’ in the children’s ward since being abandoned 5 weeks earlier.
I put on a fake smile and muttered a weak greeting to the hospital staff as I met them. Why weren’t you protecting this baby, I was thinking, but I got my answer as I walked into the overcrowded children’s ward. The reality of the hospital staff’s daily experience with sickness, disease and death humbled me. The beds were overcrowded. Mothers lay on broken benches, heads resting on their sick child’s cot. There was limited running water and electricity. The hospital had limited supplies to treat the children.
The head nurse, the Matron, walked me past the sick babies and toddlers to a few cribs at the back of the ward and it was here that I met six abandoned children, ages 8 months to 3+ years. Still in shock and grief, I picked up one of the abandoned babies that was crying and pressed her body next to mine. The cloth towel she used as a diaper was soaking but I held her tight, literally needing something to ‘hold on to’.
Over the next week, I would spend my days at the hospital caring for the abandoned children. The overworked nursing staff was grateful for the help. As I got to know each child, I became especially attached to one. I called her Grace*.
Grace cried most of the time during the first days I was with her. She needed to be held, she needed to feel loved, she needed to be fed. One of the things all the abandoned babies I met had in common were these haunting, empty eyes. It made me start to wonder what the last hours or days of Grace’s life had been like before she was abandoned. When was the last time she had smiled? Did her mother ever sing to her as she fell asleep? Did she remember anything good, could she feel good again or would it always be suppressed by the trauma of whatever led to her being abandoned?
One day, I got some answers. I was holding a still quiet but well-fed Grace as some nurses starting singing African songs. Grace began to move. Her body started to sway in my arms. She smiled and waved her hands. The music took her from her quiet place to joy in an instant. She remembered.
Over the course of the next days, her eyes lit up when she smiled, she flirted and entertained us. The songs the nurses sang had connected her to some part of her humanity where she could remember joy. Even at 8 months old, her body’s natural response to music was to move. Her subconscious was making the choice to re-connect with the moments of her short life that made her feel good. I watched this little girl come back to life. Three years later she is happy and thriving at a local orphanage through initial support from my organization House of Loveness.
Earlier this year, Grace’s transformation became an important lesson in my own life. After a challenging time with an unexpected family situation, I found myself shutting down. I felt dead inside and it showed in my rigid body. I felt locked – body, mind and soul.
Within a week I was on a plane to Costa Rica where I would begin a week-long Qoya retreat with Rochelle Schieck at the Blue Spirit resort in Nosara, a beautiful rugged beach town on the Pacific Coast. I had heard about Qoya from friends in New York City but arrived at the resort having never taken a Qoya class. Qoya was founded by Rochelle Schieck, who combines the wisdom of yoga with the freedom of creative dance and sensual movement. It’s a class where you focus on how the movement feels, not how it looks. As a former college athlete, I also found it to be the best workout I have ever experienced in my life.
Our daily 2 1/2 hour class was in a glass-enclosed yoga studio overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Just below us, monkeys played in the trees and waves rolled into the beach as we settled onto our mats. Thirty women showed up for the retreat. We were all ages, all shapes and from all over the world. Rochelle asked us to set an intention for ourselves for the class. Mine was to dance for joy, an emotion that had been mostly void in my life for the past several weeks, maybe months, maybe years.
As the first song came on, my stiff body barely wanted to move. Rochelle reminded us that the movement begins within and we were to move our bodies from where we were at that moment. What that meant for me was I was going to have to move from a place of grief because that was what was being held hostage inside my body. Grief from my work and losses in Zimbabwe, grief from a long ago divorce, grief from recent betrayal of a few close friends. And so I began to move from that place and let the music flow through my body.
What happened in that first Qoya class was truly remarkable. I danced through the grief until I was moving from a place of joy. This didn’t take hours to get to, it took minutes. And just like the nurses singing to Grace helped her remember, Qoya helped me remember how it felt to be in my body again. I moved that stuck, locked feeling through my body and danced on until I was smiling again. And just like Grace, I came back to life.
*Grace: Is not her real name and has been changed to protect her identity.
Betsy Blankenbaker is a filmmaker and humanitarian. She runs her organization, House of Loveness, in Zimbabwe for abandoned and orphaned children. Betsy was so inspired by Qoya that she took the teacher’s training and looks forward to teaching classes in Zimbabwe and beyond.
To learn more about joining us for the upcoming Qoya Service Retreat to Zimbabwe benefiting the House of Loveness, click here.