In India it is common to say:
Even when there actually is a problem, the Indian way is to sway their head from side to side and say, “No problem ma’am, no problem!”
Funny how here, I am ma’am as opposed to my homies in L.A. that call me Ms.
I arrived Friday in Chennai. Ranvir Shah, my dear, dear, beloved friend, invited us to dinner at his house. Ranvir is founder of The Prakriti Foundation, which is hosting and coordinating this visit.
In his easy-going fashion, he gathers a hand full of people, each more accomplished than the other, all incredibly interesting and kind, for an informal dinner at his house.
Delicious food, unbelievable company and meaningful conversations!
My brilliant, one of a kind, generous-beyond-belief friend Ranvir, who I simply adore, and his equally kind, talented and beautiful wife Nandi organize this dinner. Like it is no problem at all.
We eat, we laugh, and we drink. It’s as if we have all known each other for years. I feel welcomed and loved. What a way to start this visit.
The next morning as we are driving to The Banyan Academy of Leadership and Mental Health (BALM) where I am conducting workshops, we get a little lost. I am feeling the jet lag. My problem is keeping my eyes open.
We drive through a few villages, get wrong directions; we are kind of driving in circles.
We keep passing women on carts with flowers. Once. Twice. Then a third time. They smile beautiful smiles at us.
We are almost late and can't really find our way, but all is good.
“No problem ma’am” the driver tells us.
“We'll find it!” And we do.
I walk in to an extraordinary place.
This college, BALM, is a school of social work and psychology.
Homeless woman who suffer from mental illnesses and students of social work and psychology live in the same compound. On one side live the students. On the other side live the residents. The floors above are the classrooms.
The residents are woman who lived on the streets, suffered trauma and have various psychological issues.
Could there be a more brilliant idea?
What a privilege these students have to learn and have real case studies in front of them. Not just someone in a textbook, but real people.
To some this might sound weird, but here it is as natural as the sun rising.
There is something so right about this incredible inclusion.
The main professor shares with me that they are the ones that learn and grow from the residents, and that this is a model that has totally proven itself.
In the yard above a big green tree on the wall it says,
“I exist, there for I am.” And that is how they live.
As the residents, some very troubled, walk around, they are greeted with warmth and love.
No one cares or makes a big deal about any untypical behavior.
They are who they are. It is totally excepted with kindness and affection by all. It is not a problem.
Honestly, this, THIS is the world I dream of.
I teach two workshops. The first is for students of the school. Sweet soft-spoken young women and one man.
Somewhere in the middle of the workshop one of the residents comes in. She makes some noise, comes to me and holds my hand. No one cares. The workshop continues. It isn't a problem. Then she leaves, just like she came in.
We talk, we play, I teach, I learn. It is deep and meaningful.
These students are savvy; they speak English and know the world.
The next workshop is for social workers that are in the field.
And when I say FIELD, I mean literally the fields, the villages and rural areas.
There are all woman and again one man.
They are incredible. Most of them don't speak English.
I must add that my translator did not really speak English herself, but we made it work.
The few that speak English help out. I am animated and we understand each other.
It's not a problem.
We talk about mental health issues and how families don't want to admit that someone in their family is sick.
We talk about stigmas and fear. We act out scenarios and talk about poverty and despair.
We discuss self-care and say that as providers of care we must care for our selves too.
I am inspired, touched and moved.
At the end we stand in a circle, I tell them that they are a light - such a light.
I recite the words of the song I am about to play entitled, “I Am Light,” by India Arie.
I am Light
I am Light
I am not the things my family did
I am not the voices in my head
I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside
I am Light
I am not the mistakes I have made
or any of the things that caused me pain
I am not the pieces of the dream I left behind
I am Light
I am not the color of my eyes
I am not the skin on the outside
I am not the my age
I am not the my race
my soul inside is all light
I am divinity defined
I am the god on the inside
I am a star
a piece of it all
I am Light
We hold hands. One woman cries. The woman across from her sheds a tear too. If I was not so insanely jet lagged I probably would be balling.
After the workshop we go to the resident’s store. They weave, block print scarves, make bags and more.
When you come to The Advot Project’s Garden Party on October 21st you will have the opportunity to purchase amazing gifts made by these beautiful women.
Women who have had very hard lives.
Women who battle mental illness and have many demons.
Women who now have a safe place to put their head.
They are fed and taken care of.
They are NOT a problem at all.
They simply are. Therefore they matter.
Isn't it time we too do the same?
Isn’t it time we stop hiding and being ashamed of mental illness?
Isn’t it time we adopt this remarkable attitude and simply except the ones among us, who carry the weight of their troubles deep in their souls?
Before I leave, one of the residents comes over and gives me a long warm hug. I say good-bye, and I think isn't it time that we all include instead of alienate?
I get in the car I ask the driver something. He smiles at me.
“No problem ma’am”.
My heart is full and I feel it expanding today.
I lean back and close my eyes, and surrender to the jet lag.