Making Sanctuary: Hope, Companionship, Race and Emergence in the Anthropocene
Bayo Akomolafe (Ph.D.)
Seeking Connections Across Generations
Spiritual Directors International
Seattle Marriott Bellevue
March 15, 2019
I want to begin by expressing my appreciation to Brother Anil Singh-Molares and the organizing teams behind this conference. I feel blessed and welcome to be here. Thank you very much for your work to make this happen, and for inviting me to say a few things.
Speaking of welcome, it has been an extremely and excruciatingly trying journey from India to this country. I have been travelling with my family non-stop since the night of the 10th. We missed our flight to the US from Abu Dhabi after an immigration official decided (not surprisingly given the politics of fear today) that we were escaping into the US. Nothing I could say or show could convince him otherwise – not the presentation of my credentials, not the presentation of carefully curated travel documents, not my long history of speaking and teaching in the United States and returning to my adopted home in India, and certainly not my attempts to make nice and smile. He was confident we were just another refuge-seeking family clawing at the pearly gates of Paradise.
By the time he realized we had no such intentions, the plane had left. Of course, there were no apologies given; we were merely rerouted and thrown at the feet of the airline – a long process that meant standing in front of an airport transfer desk for hours. We – my wife Ej, our five year old daughter Alethea and our one year old son, Kyah – eventually took another flight out the next day and arrived at the Washington Dulles Airport just in time for me to catch my flight to Seattle. That flight too was cancelled due to unnamed mechanical problems and issues related to this country’s ban of the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft after a plane accident in Ethiopia. I spent another night in limbo while my family drove away to rest with a family member in Richmond, Virginia.
In short, through two cancelled/delayed/postponed flights and the stresses of transcontinental travel in the company of a young family, hopping from 5 cities (Chennai, Abu Dhabi, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and now Seattle) in 3 days, I have come here. Upon arriving in my hotel room yesterday afternoon, my body broke down in the comfort of terra firma – which is the reason I couldn’t show up for the first event yesterday.
Beyond saying “good morning” then, I have felt it important to give account of my presence, to guide your fingers so that they touch the rough edges of my arrival, the long body lurking behind the image of the speaker before you, and the materiality of my voice. I have also told you the story of my coming to foreground the kind of intergenerational work and connections I suspect we are being called to make at this very crucial time in our collective history as a species. This is what I hope to share here: a vision of spiritual companionship that breaks through the dyadic formulation we might be used to – a vision of spiritual direction in a time of crisis.
On the last leg of my flight out here, I decided I was going to tell you this story instead of greeting you with a curt and colonial “good morning” – even though I come from the Yoruba people who heavily emphasize greetings. I thought about how strange and yet disturbingly familiar that phrase is: “good morning”. It presumes too much. Its constancy and perfunctoriness hide entire worlds and let things slip away unnoticed. It masks the strange and baffling in the humdrum of the usual.
Needless to say, the mornings that greeted my fathers and my mothers generations ago are not the same mornings we know today. My own late father’s mornings were probably devoid of the fascinating centrality of Twitter to global politics today. Or the spectre of Artificial Intelligence. Those mornings didn’t have the internet, streaming services interacting with hip-hop as a countercultural anti-fascist tool in Thailand, robot lawyers, sentient rivers, monkeys taking selfies, gut microorganisms being considered as a ‘second brain’, a massive subterranean world of zombie bacteria, human memory and cognition now seen as environmental matters, or the image of a Reality TV star-turned President threatening to punch protesters in the face. His mornings didn’t have the looming shadow of climate change blocking out the sun.
We live in strange times. Times of transgression and upheaval. Boundaries are porous, and once resolute lines dividing the world up into neat categories are faltering. The furniture in the room has moved, and things are no longer the same. If you tried to be still for a lingering second, you might notice just how dizzying the world’s irreverent spin is.
This idea that the world spins and shocks and surprises inspired many of the horror stories we were often told as kids. I remember the one about a Yoruba princess called Olajumoke falling in love with a handsome man who was actually a human head that borrowed his body parts from animals in the forest. When we were told this horror story, they told it to us to frighten us, to put a check on us, to delineate the monstrous from the normal and to discipline how we moved in the world as growing children. Today the prospects of disassembling oneself aren’t that wild or farfetched. The idea that we are coupled together, incoherent, unstable, and provisional – spread out and diffracted across spacetime – is becoming canon in posthuman biology. The horrific is now the honorific.
In the year 2000, a Dutch chemist and an American researcher, Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, gave this horrific strangeness a name: the Anthropocene. You might have heard of it. To be specific, the Anthropocene is the proposed name for a new geologic era we now find ourselves in, one which is characterized by the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth’s ecosystems, and includes climate change. Rising carbon emissions. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb events. Ocean acidification and the loss of biodiversity. Massive industrialization. Toxic spills. Perforated absolutes. Danger. These are some of the features of this post-Holocene period. Our new normal is a frightening mangle of the messy manifold.
You might suppose that all of this has nothing to do with why we are here. A closer look however might show that the Anthropocene is no less a spiritual crisis than it is a geological-political-biological-technological-gastronomical-racial crisis. The Anthropocene is not just change in weather, it requires a change in how we think about the human, and how we think about thought itself. It reframes what it means to be human. No longer can we be seen as lords of the land, transcendent and floating above the ignoble motions of mere matter. The Anthropocene entangles us to the environment we’ve long tried to escape, and ties our fate to the planet’s. The very category of the human has fallen apart – like Olajumoke’s husband.
If the human body is the site of many notions and visions of the sacred, with its plenitude of desires, affects, gestures, habits, secretions, obsessions, conspiracies and resonances, and the human is no longer this coherent thing we are used to, then even the sacred has changed address. Even the sacred is asunder. It isn’t necessarily contained. It is spread out; it has melted through its containment and moved from its rigid altars. Better still, the sacred is movement. The sacred is the irreverent quivering of an object that refuses to sit still within the category modernity has assigned to it. The sacred is the surprising moment a wave pattern collapses into a particle when an ‘observer’ is introduced in a dual-slit experiment. The sacred is the moment my supposedly stable identity as a ‘black man’ wanders and strays away from the fixed algorithms of blackness, experimenting with other genres of embodiment.
This is what the Anthropocene – foresighted by many indigenous knowledge systems – does to identity: it breaks it down and composts it. And this is what it does to the practice of spiritual direction. What spiritual direction ‘means’ is still and always up for grabs. In the Anthropocene, when we read the practice through the ecological movements that are writing our crisis era, we can understand spiritual direction differently – as touching the material conditions of the changing body of the sacred.
Spiritual direction – this practice of companionship that helps one make sense of the sacred – now has to contend with splintered gods, broken halos, deconstructed temples, ripped curtains that once divided the ordinary from the extraordinary, and tongue-in-cheek oracles. The Anthropocene reframes spiritual direction as “immersion”, not escape. As “touching our long bodies.” As “with-nessing the trouble of presence.” As “nurturing a grammar of spill” and learning to “shapeshift” by meeting the manifold others that inhabit this once self-evident phenomenon we call the self. Spiritual direction in the Anthropocene may now conduct the modest work of sniffing out the sacred in the mundane and harvesting surprise from the familiar.
What would it look like to co-generate a politics that revisits the ordinary as if it were enchanted and surprising? What would it feel like to find god in the dirt under the fingernails of our playing children, or in the thick folds of the mundane? What would it take to come to the edges of the water, to the dense bodies of inhospitality that cannot be wished away with language and will, to the fields of hopelessness we often try to cover up with positive attitudes? What if rank cynicism were holy ground, and grief a sacrament of the mundane? This work of staying with a world we cannot escape, or touching our tentacular and shockingly monstrous bodies, of dwelling at the sites of rupture not rapture, and of decentering/de-emphasizing the human subject in how the world comes to matter, is what I call “making sanctuary”.
Let me tell you about sanctuary.
After my father died, I sought the kinds of comfort only rapture could offer. My teenage years were filled with esoteric inquiry into the nature of reality and the notion of the sacred. I needed to make sense of my world that had recently undergone its greatest and most lasting trauma. So I read the Bible through and through. I read the Bhagavad Gita and a bit of the Koran. With a floppy disk I printed and read the 1000-page publication of 19th century American revivalist Charles Finney – ‘Systematic Theology’ – and the writings of his contemporary Asa Mahan while selling barbequed chicken on the streets in Lagos to support my family still grieving the loss of our dad. My inquiry led me to an academic career – a prolonged search for stability and for chariots of fire to take me where my father had apparently gone.
That search came to one of many magical forks in the road when I took my daughter out to swim one day. It was 3 years ago, in Richmond, Virginia. I woke up in the morning and decided to hang out with Alethea. I decided to conduct an experiment of some sort: I was going to say yes to anything she asked me to do that day. And only for that day, mind you!
Alethea was two years old (she is now 5), with powerful eyes and the fairy-like beauty of her mother. She didn’t walk, she tiptoed – as if she was in cahoots with chuckling gusts of wind. And she loved water (she still does). When I gave her a bath, she would protest and yell just to have the chance to hold her hand under running tap water – indefinitely. On this day, Alethea wanted to go for a swim with her ‘Dada’ as she had done many other times, and so I obliged. I promised her that I was going to allow her lead the way. She tiptoe-ran through the door, beckoning on me to hurry up. I quickly put on my flip-flops and offered her my pinkie in an act of surrender.
“We go to swim, Dada?” Alethea excitedly said-asked, prancing along like a rabbit towards a carrot colony.
“Yes, dear. We go to swim”, I said, already half-dragged by the indomitable will of a two-year old.
When we didn’t make a right turn to the pool, I realized Alee had missed the way. But an implicit aspect of my promise was to be led by Alethea, even if that meant going in the ‘wrong direction’. So she continued to run ahead – in the direction of the lake, while she spoke animatedly about swimming in the pool.
As we approached the lake, Alethea stopped dead in her tracks.
“Remove your shoes Dada!” she said.
So I did. I liked to walk barefoot so it was just as well. But I didn’t expect what was to come next.
“Wear my shoes, Dada!” she said, as if it were a very natural thing for a 30-something year old man with size 45 feet to wear pink sandals that hardly protected his toes. But, as you already know, I did. And she slipped her little feet into my own flip-flops, and reinitiated our journey. At this time, I could sense the first restless stirrings of the politics of adulthood, as I struggled with feelings of embarrassment.
Moments later, we were standing by the lake, watching the ducks, the faint ripples occasioned by their gentle retreat. We simply stood there. She, by my right hand, just stared at the serene body of water. Small innocent seconds rolled into an oedipal minute. At some point, I wondered whether this might be a good time to chip in a fatherly lesson or two, or to connect with her in a deep way – anything to fill the disturbing void of silence that had enveloped us. I tried to talk, but she shut me down. “Dada, don’t talk”, she said, with the cavalier eminence of a two year old. I had promised to let her lead, but I wasn’t sure what the joggers nearby were now thinking of the queer voiceless figures standing by the lake.
Then, I heard birds. I am not good at identifying them, but those distinctly avian sounds came wafting through, bending and melting with the wind, ruffling the green leafy protrusions above us. A murmuration of sound, creature and surprise. It felt sudden – like the arrival of a triumphant gestalt where there were merely bits and pieces of the puzzle. I noticed lichens crawling around a tree, the exuberance of the soil beneath our feet, the quack-quacking of the ducks intent on making themselves heard. It was a soft ‘a-ha’ moment: I noticed that everything is alive. I understood in that very tactile and embodied way that the material world wasn’t just a backdrop for human activity, wasn’t just static being, or template awaiting the ordainment of meaning.
Alethea’s shush was my burning bush. I was seemingly ushered into the presence of something greater. Something that exceeded me. Something I needed to be defeated by. It felt like discombobulation at the edges. Like being composted.
A biblical character by the name of Jacob also came to know the discombobulation of which I speak.
Escaping from his enraged brother Esau, whom he had cheated out of a ritualistic blessing offered by his father Isaac years before, Jacob fled to the wilderness to pray for escape. He had sent his wives and possessions and servants to a different town to keep them safe. He feared greatly for his own life, and didn’t think he would live to see his family again. He was a trickster at the end of his tricks, and now he had to pay the price for his youthful follies – to his own brother, no less. He slept, despondent and anxious, only to be awakened by a stranger standing above him. A wrestling match quickly ensued. They fought each other so hard that they tired each other out. The stranger, whom Jacob later realized was ‘God’ himself, then smote Jacob on his thigh, dislodging the muscles there and rendering them out of joint. Realizing the hidden sacred in his defeat, Jacob quickly spurted his desires to his opponent: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” We are told Jacob left that arena with a new name, Israel, father of a nation, and that he made peace with his brother Esau when they ultimately met.
What’s more interesting to me is that the way ‘God’ responded to a man’s cry for quick escape was to slow him down even more, breaking his confident gait, and gifting him a limp.
And this theme of slowing down in times of urgency is the core idea of sanctuaries as I understand them. Slowing down is not a function of speed; it is a lyric of decomposition. It is about recovering from a particular performance of racial identity, of selfhood, of centrality, and of significance – a particular genre of being human – and melting into a fleshly abundance that allows other response-abilities and senses to make themselves known. It is about incapacitation, being wounded. It is about embracing the things we often try to get around – the shadows and the darknesses – and working from the knowing that we will not arrive or figure things out or claim final territory because our work and our failures are intergenerational conversations.
Sanctuaries in 16th century England were sites of emancipation. The juridical landscape looked very different then. There were no lawyers or police officers. If you were accused of doing something terrible, it was hard to shake off that accusation. Women accused of being witches were famously thrown into lakes. If they drowned they were exonerated. If they didn’t drown, that was only proof of their evil powers. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t! A temporary reprieve was however available for those who claimed sanctuary, which involved surrendering oneself to the mercy of the church by gripping a part of the physical structure – most frequently the ornate sanctuary door knocker or hagoday that hung outside the building. In this sense, sanctuaries were disruptions in the logic of revenge and punishment. They were transversal places. They are not abandonments of the previous, but enfoldments of the momentous – the usual touching itself to evoke its alterity. No one could enter with the sword and anger with which they arrived. The sanctuary was an edge in the middle.
In thinking about the kind of work our very interesting times call us to do, as well as the material texture of responsiveness and responsivity, I have adopted the figure of the sanctuary as an aesthetic of posthuman justice. We still speak about sanctuaries today when we refer to sanctuary cities or make connections to the constant migratory crises instigated by the global politics of nation-states and the destruction brought about neoliberal capitalism. There is a flatness in the modern usage of the word. In my employment and reframe of the concept, sanctuaries are not about ‘safety’. Sanctuaries are about the difficult work of shapeshifting. An ancient Efik ceremonial practice in Calabar, southeast Nigeria, called Nkugho or Mbopo (for the Ibibios) comes to mind. The Nkugho, a dying art, is a fattening room. To prepare girls for womanhood, they were taken to a fattening room where they were fed delicious meals. Becoming fat was a sign of prosperity, abundance, and chastity. Fatness was a sign of beauty. In a sense, sanctuaries are Nkughos we are being invited into to become ‘wide’, to meet our intergenerational bodies, and to perform other shapes of aliveness and attentiveness to the world around us.
Sanctuaries are not places where we are set straight; sanctuaries are places we are broken down. Sanctuaries are not sites of solutions. They are practices that help us see that the way we see the problem we want to address is often part of the problem. Sanctuaries are not committed to reinforcing rectitude, as much as they are invested in touching inclinations and the intersectionalities of our bodies. Most importantly, sanctuaries are assemblages or reconfigurations of the dynamic cross-cutting relationships between us and our children, us and our ancestors, and us and the other-than-human agencies in and around us.
I cannot help but think of spiritual companionship today as the strategies described and embraced in the concept of sanctuary. Not just guidance but actively losing our way in order to be found anew. Allowing our children to guide us to the edges of lakes where sticks and ducks and lichens and trees and soft wind and rock and worm produce alchemical magic. And not just an inexorable march into the future but an active practice of re-membering the past as the haunting temporality folded into the density of the present. Spiritual companionship is not a private affair of seeking redemption and meaning; it is a public endeavour that connects us to a more-than-human tapestry that includes sense and non-sense. The individual has never been alone. The individual is a teeming community of others.
Apart from teaching, travelling, writing, speaking, and getting stopped by immigration officials, I work with The Emergence Network, which we founded to research into and proliferate sanctuaries wherever the conditions are right for that kind of work. This November, we are co-creating a carnival in Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, where transatlantic slaves first disembarked from their Guineamen and proceeded to live lives of subjugation and suffering. Today, those colonial dynamics are still extant. But the very best modernity has to offer to the excruciatingly complex subject of human differences is even more exploitation. By offering ‘inclusion’ to the racialized and marginalized, the nation-state inadvertently upholds the same power structures and standards of humanity that excluded the invisible in the first place. Are there other places of power we can turn to? Vunja – meaning rupture and dance in Swahili – is inspired by the underground cultural practices of the old slaves of the New World in their responses to domination. Those slaves created sanctuaries of power that now lives in the Santeria religion, in Rastafari, in Susu banking systems, in calypso and capoeira, in gayap community practices, and in their stories they passed down to us and encoded in our bodies. In Brazil, we are working with favelas and marginalized communities to enact ‘postactivist’ sanctuaries, and to nurture other ways of seeing the world and its many possibilities.
If the task of spiritual companionship is dwelling-together-with and losing our forms generously in order to find other ways of with-nessing a troubled world, then our current course on The Emergence Network, called Vulture, designed for those who sense we must live in a time of demise, is another instance of making sanctuary.
But perhaps the most challenging practice for me – and I suspect for many of us – is to meet our children anew, seeing them as teachers and elders. By blurring the generational walls made firm by a schooled society and its addictions with class and hierarchy, we are learning to think of our children as spiritual companions, as ethnographic guides into the terrain cleaved open by our dangerous dissertations of distance and supremacy. I am learning a sense of the divine in hanging out – or failing to hang out – with my children. I am learning that being a father in a time when making kind is so problematic that we are invited to make kin instead can be a sanctuary.
And it is in this precious place I leave us – in the hands of our own children.
Back by the lake in Henrico, Richmond, Alethea and I ended up playing after our unexpected libation of silence, decorating our faces and hands with mud, poking little twigs into the wet loamy soil, occasionally interrupted by the leitmotif of quacking around us. We walked back to our apartment like veterans of an exquisite order of things. Neighbours threw quizzical glances at us; I stammered out weak explanations like ‘she likes dirt’ or something else to account for our very dirty appearance. Ej was even less forgiving, but later ordered us to the bathroom.
I washed all the stains off that day. I scrubbed it all off as Alethea, oblivious to her mum’s disappointment, giggled – enjoying another opportunity to play and splash in water. And when I was done with washing her, I washed myself. Not all the stains came off. The ones that remained linger till this day: the stains inflicted by the guidance of my daughter. The stains of knowing I had withnessed and become part of a larger scheme of things – led by the wise grip of my little Alethea.