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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Valarie Kaur -- Why Do We Fall?

It has been nearly a year since I wrote here last, and yet 2007 was my most public year yet. I traveled the country on a national film and speaking tour, living out of my suitcase, moving from city to city, encountering stories and people and ideas like never before. If writing is my primary way of understanding my experiences, why did I not write? I was asked over and over again, and now in this new year, when I'm returning to myself and the world, I feel I must come clean.

It begins with a story, as it always must.

On August 31, 2004, I stood on a sidewalk in New York City with a camera in hand, taping a protest at the Republican National Convention. I was there as a legal observer, taping in order to protect against police brutality. The police came in with great force and bloodied people up in the street. When they saw my lens, they arrested me too. The handcuffs cut the blood from my hands. When I asked for them to be loosened, an agitated lieutenant twisted my hands and arm, slicing my body in pain. He walked away to make an example out of me.


I was detained behind bars for 16 hours. My arm was wrapped in a cast in the emergency room upon release. I was one of more than a thousand arrested that day. (For more, click here for my full story and my op-ed in Salon.)

A few days later, I started graduate school at Harvard. Instead of seeking therapy, I threw myself into philosophy as a way to think about human cruelty. While books steadied my mind, they could not reach the trauma burned into my body.

For the most part, I ignored my injury when making Divided We Fall. By the time the film premiered and began touring, the injury worsened into a severe chronic pain condition and brought my body to a halt last year.

I could not lift a toothbrush, let alone write an e-mail. I could not sleep for the pain. In the night, I would cry for my arm to be sliced off. I had made it my cause to stop violence against others, yet it was so easy to do violence to myself. I liked to scream at my body. It was the only way to say this is not of me. I prayed for someone to fix me - heal me - save me.

I stopped writing, not just for the physical pain that cut through my right side, but because a part of me had died. It was the part of me that trusted in the universe and my own ability to accomplish anything I dreamt -- the part that dreamt of flying. My wings had been cut, and I had to come to terms with my own fragility. I had fallen into a life of pain and prepared a graveyard for my ambitions.
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I became a master at covering up my pain on stage. I held the mic and told stories and listened to people's lives. It wasn't that my smile wasn't real, but that I learned how to create two selves inside of me: the public self who spoke and shone, the private self penetrated in pain, stripped of voice. It is taxing to tear yourself in two and live both lives. Fortunately for me, it is also unsustainable.

I knew I had to move. I headed west until I hit the ocean and made a home there. This is where a circle of friends and healers put me back together. They did not take away my pain; they taught me how to own it. I learned how to sit inside my pain and still speak. I learned not to hide it like some shameful thing but to honor it. I learned how to treat my pain as a guide. And it has become my teacher. It is teaching me to love my body as I love others, to live balanced days, to recognize the pain that others hide. And each day, it takes me to the ocean and makes me listen.

On my last walk to the ocean, the setting sun burned the sky a blazing orange, as if someone had taken a match to the horizon.

A man sat with his guitar. "You just had to run to the edge of the world, didn't you?"

"Yes, I did," I said, astonished at his knowing.

Suddenly a fin appeared and disappeared in the water. Something inside me woke up. “It was nice talking to you.”

I was running before I knew I was running, the sand beneath my feet disappeared, and I leapt into the ocean to meet the dolphins. They were gone. I waited there, thick silvery water holding up my broken body. "Come back!" I cried out to them. "Come back to me! You are beautiful!" A beat.

And they came back.

Swimming swift and strong around me, their smooth backs silhouetted against the orange, I could see their eyes. And I was laughing and laughing and shrieking, ecstatic. My mouth moved before my mind:

“The universe loves me!”

And looking around there was no one, so I yelled again:

“The universe loves me!... And I am in love with the universe!”

Laughing at myself, I took in the silver water, orange sunset, dark heaving ocean, sparkling stars deepening into the blue dome, and for a moment felt myself held within the infinite.

“So you sent the dolphins as your messenger. To give me the message of your love."

Walking home soaking wet, I was alive.

There is an aspect of the universe that can kill you -- bind your hands, beat you down, bleed your heart.

But there's another aspect of the universe that is loving – it can redeem your pain with love. It depends on how you read it. The sea can drown you; the sea can return you to yourself. People are the same. I am the same. I have returned myself to myself.

We have this power inside us. (We are inside this power.)

So a new year begins. This year, unlike any other, I felt the earth turn and even wept when the clock struck midnight. It is a new beginning. And although we bring with us our past pain, I have come to see that pain itself can be the path to our new beginning.

We fall so that we can swim with the dolphins.

Thank you for reading. For an excellent review of my journey with Divided We Fall in 2007, check out our YEAR-IN-REVIEW.
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I’m using voice activated software to write again and will continue to blog here on my travels with the film and in life.
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And -- yes, I have a case against the city of New York.

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