I was trying to describe to my sister the other day, a feeling I was feeling, one that I’ve been riddled with lately. It’s like a yearning for connection, for joy, and community. But also a desperate desire for peace, recuperation, regeneration and deep introspection. It’s wanting to say yes, spontaneously to all the fun things that pop up during the week, or random invites from friends or strangers, coupled with an intense anxiety in social situations, and needing like, at least a week to plan to leave the house for something other than work or a grocery shop. It’s knowing my heart and soul need nourishment from seeing people, and forming connections with others, but that the heart and soul are also feeling kinda fragile, a bit tender, and can only handle another cosy night on the couch, cocooned in an oodie, watching crap TV. And then of course, this leads to bouts of wild indecision, entertaining every possible scenario in your head (do I want to go out/do I want to stay in/oh my god what do I want/what do I need/oh my god who AM I?), and then just the residual, pervasive feeling of listlessness. I keep thinking when will this end? I just need one more day’s rest. I just need one more night’s really good sleep. But the feeling persists no matter how many good nights’ sleep, and nights in I have.
I’ve been reflecting on community a lot since the last two Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi leadership wānanga that I’ve been welcomed into. What does it mean to be part of community? How does one feel part of community? What even is community? How does one lead a community they’re part of? And most importantly, how is one supported to lead?
There’s a Samoan word tautua which means service. If you speak to any Samoan about what they think leadership is, you’ll probably hear the word tautua. That being a leader is being in service. It’s leading from the back, serving your community. Quite often, it’s putting the needs of the community before your own. When I looked around the room at both wānanga, I saw a group of fafine who, though with glowing auras, and the kindest of eyes, had been giving, and giving, and giving themselves. Energy levels depleting. Batteries on 2%. Time, slipping through overworked fingers and hands.
How does one be of service to their community, lead their community, in such a way that they’re also able to be nourished? That the wick inside of their puku stays burning, not burnt out? I saw a group of leaders who perhaps didn’t think of themselves leaders, but who all, for sundry reasons, stepped up to the plate, to serve, to teach, to educate, to learn, to grow, to challenge, resist, build new structures. Who hold up their communities. I saw individuals who carried the emotional and spiritual burdens of families, friends, work groups; who were activists, and māmās, and artists and creatives, whose light shines so brightly, that light which needs to be nurtured in turn.
Holding space for people is an art in itself. It requires stamina, energy, humility and alofa. It requires oodles of openness, and strength, and softness. At both wānanga, our Te Taumata fanau held space for us to just be. Our vulnerabilities unearthed, we sat and spoke from our hearts. We were a circle of certified babes and baddies, often used to holding this space ourselves. For this to be done for us, to be given time and energy to lean into our dreams, to vocalise the desires from the deepest parts of our hearts; to speak our fears, and our often-ignored needs into the middle, and to lock eyes with someone who you know felt that; to see the nodding head of a new friend who gets it; we collectively eased the burdens of guilt off each other’s shoulders for wanting rest; through words of comfort, we told each other it’s okay to want replenishment; for this space to be held for us, we shed skins and layers, connecting to the parts of each other that needed to feel seen. We were held, not tightly, but with enough slack to free fall, to open up, and maybe feel lost, or feel scared, to feel a bit of tension, but also the ability to move through that. We were held and we held each other. Alofa’aga Esther, Kylie, Chantelle, Michelle, Alison. For discerning what we needed and for the gift of talanoa, deep dialogue with mentors, wonderful artists; time for introspection and for connection.
At one point in our talanoa at our second wānanga, we talked about being supported in situations that could feel unsafe, or put you in a vulnerable position. Instead of entering these situations alone, we should always bring others with us.
I remember feeling so desperately that I wanted this, but felt that I had no-one to bring. And then someone spoke into the circle. Remember your ancestors. They are always with you. I bring them into every space I enter. I had a vision, very clearly, of standing at the threshold of something, a flying V of ancestors standing behind me, all the way back to Tagaloa. Holding me so I never feel alone.
And when the vision cleared, and I looked around, and another voice spoke bring each other with you.
We looked around the circle and saw new friends. People we’ve formed beautiful bonds with. I think about community not as something fixed, but something relational. In Samoa we call this teu le vā, caring for the vā, the space between – nurturing relationships above all else. Maybe community is formed through reaching into this space, and clasping hands in the unknown, finding each other’s fingers and remembering the warmth of touch. The joy in connection and alofa.
Maybe community is simply reaching out.
Here are my hands. My ten fingers, nails currently painted a popping fluoro green. Tuālima on both hands – my left navigating towards my ancestors, my right, an ode to feminine strength and the wāhine in my life whose strength I look to and draw upon. Hold them.
I have found sisters in you all. And I hope that I can be this for you. In a world that often undervalues the work we do, I value you. I recognise the afi that rumbles in your belly and the fight that is never over. I see the hands that weave stories and worlds together seamlessly. I see the suppressed yawn behind the eyes, as you show up, once again, to that show, or respond to that email, or jump on that late night or early morning Zoom call. I see the heart, beating in its cage, bursting with alofa (sometimes so much, it hurts) for those you care about. I feel the hearty laugh, and the world-weary sigh.
Let us hold hands, all. Take a deep breath together. Exhale into the circle. Let our breath nourish each other’s spirits. Let us not be afraid to send that text. To make that call. To reach out. Reach out. Reach out into the vā. A circle of hands that can’t be broken.
Illustration credit: Pounamu Wharekawa