I like your ponytail

Filed under [ Compassion ]

“I like your ponytail.” I said in a playful manner.  “Ponytail?” he repeated in a thick French accent.  There and then began the most extraordinary odyssey of my life.  It was a warm spring Sunday afternoon, a perfect day to eat at an east village sidewalk restaurant.  My friend and I were savoring the delicious, Yemenite food, basking in the glorious sun; engaged in a lively discussion; enjoying watching the myriad of colorful people passing by – we were drinking each moment of life.

Among the sea of funky pedestrians, his persona leaped out.  It wasn’t his tall, slender body, his graceful stride, his artsy garments, or even his thick, long, silvery pony tail; it was the energy emanating from his being. Perhaps it was the twinkle in his eyes, seemingly searching with awe, reminding me of the captivated look on a child’s face that caught my attention.  Whatever it was, a compelling need to know him arose within me.  I motioned to my friend with a subtle move of my head to look in his direction.  It is unclear to me whether he noticed my gesture or the restaurant caught his eye, but he suddenly glided past us toward the menu on the restaurant’s window, standing no more than a foot away from us.  It is then that those words tumbled out of my mouth to greet him.

From that moment on, it was as if my life was hijacked by some other entity, a force that would take me into the wondrous world of art, Buddhism, human rights issues, Tibet and China.  I would have gone anywhere and done anything with him after learning about his amazing work as a human rights artist.  The way he used art as a vehicle to help ease some of the suffering around the world – like his work with poor children in Moscow, where he helped them create a cake mural in the main square; or in India, teaching art to crippled children – captured my imagination on a whole new level.  His dedication to use his talents and his life in the service of others, unleashed something in me.   There was no way I could have imagined what was ahead of me.

As he was describing his upcoming project to help the Tibetan people, my mind began to reel.  His ideas were vague and confusing.  I had no sense of what this project entailed other than using artists around the world to bring attention to the human rights violations in Tibet.  Regardless, I heard my inner voice beckoning me to jump on board.  By the time he left for Belgium a few days later, I was fully committed to the project.  The whole thing was outrageous.

When he called a month later to inform me that he met with members of the European Parliament (EP) and they have agreed to coordinate the project with us, I could barely contain my excitement.  With the excitement, though, came fear. “But what exactly are we going to do?” I asked.  “Don’t worry,” he said, “we will figure it out.  I will call you back when I have more information.”   I wanted to scream, “Don’t worry, are you kidding me?”  But I decided to just flow. Gratefully, a few weeks later, an invitation arrived from the EP inviting artists around the world to participate in a world wide artistic event that will take place in July and August 1998.  Although there were no other details like What? Where? or How? at least I learned When.  We had less than two years to pull some great project together.  The whole thing seemed unreal until I received the notice from the EP requesting my presence in Strasbourg, France, to meet with members of the Parliament and H.H. The Dalai Lama to discuss the worldwide project for Tibet.

I did not know what hit me.  Was this really happening, or am I dreaming?

How did this happen?  Where did it come from?  Who am I to get involved in this project?  I was bombarded with questions.  The responses came swiftly.  I had been concerned about this issue for several years.  I learned about the Tibetan plight in 1991 when I went to hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Madison Square Garden.  My heart broke as I felt the pain and struggle of the peaceful Tibetans who only wanted to be given the opportunity to express freely their culture and religion.   At that time I resolved to get involved and support their cause.  But like many people, this resolve quickly diminished as I continued to do my life.  Periodically, I would experience a pang of pain reminding me that I am out of integrity, that I am silent in the face of their suffering.   I would quickly suppress the pain and continue with my life.  It was after receiving this notice that the pain came back with a vengeance – came crashing down on my heart and soul screaming, “Who am I not to?”  I realized at that moment that their suffering was my suffering; that I am them and they are me; that there is no distinction between us.  WE are ONE.  An overwhelming feeling of interconnectedness and interdependence swept over me.  I knew the time is now.

With this new sense of inspiration, there was a new level of resolve.  I realized there are no coincidences.  It was destiny that brought him and me together.  Spirit was moving and guiding this vision and it was my responsibility to surrender to its will.  Armed with a vague concept of inspiring artists’ creative powers to mobilize around this vision, I committed myself to see this venture to the end.

I decided to bring my son, Leor, with me to the meeting at the European Parliament so that we can share this remarkable experience together.   Furthermore, Leor, a sophomore in Rhode Island School of Design, was the closest to an artist I had ever gotten.  While I enjoyed the art world, I had very little knowledge of and experience with it.

I should have realized something was wrong when he didn’t show up to our scheduled preparation meetings the day before our summit with His Holiness and the Parliament.  Since I did not hear from him, I reached out to Jessica Larive, the EP coordinator in the hope that she and I can iron out some of the details of the project.  We developed instant rapport. She made Leor and I feel comfortable and welcomed.  In our conversation, it became apparent to me that Frank had done a great job in enrolling her into the project.  In spite of the fact that there were hardly any details as to how this project was going to manifest, Jessica was enthusiastic and committed to supporting it any way she could.  She loved the idea of raising world-wide awareness through the arts community.  In her role as the Co-president of the Tibet Inter-group of the European Parliament, she assured me that she would help coordinate the European Artists if I helped coordinate the North and South American artists.  After giving us the agenda for the next three days, she took us on a tour of the Parliament.  Her graciousness and generosity of spirit seeped into our being.  She guided us through several offices, each with its own world issue agenda, and introduced us to several other members.  Some greeted us warmly and returned to their work, others spent quiet a long time describing their goals and their work.  The one issue that stood most in my mind was the land-mines issue.  In details we were given the most horrific descriptions of the daily injury and death caused to so many innocent civilians.  By the time we left the Parliament that day, the world seemed smaller to us.

Frank finally arrived a few minutes before our scheduled meeting with H.H. the Dalai Lama, seeming unperturbed by anything.  I was beginning to learn more about how he operated.  I was not accustomed to this flying by the seat of your pants approach, but I knew I had to adapt.  The next three days with Jessica and H.H. the Dalai Lama were nothing short of amazing.  By the end of the trip, we all seemed to have somewhat a clearer vision and a better understanding of who was responsible for what.  Although the task at hand seemed insurmountable, there was a sense that together we can make anything happen, or so I thought.

Feeling fortunate for this opportunity, upon my return home, Leor and I feverishly proceeded to develop the infrastructure of the organization.  Leor designed and built a web site so that we could reach artists from all over the world.  I applied for a Not for Profit Charity status (501c3) for the organization which we named, World Artists for Tibet.  Working every evening after coming home from my work at the Psychiatric Crisis Unit, I began the outreach to volunteers, museums, galleries, visual artists, musicians, poets, dance groups Tibetan support groups and anyone else who would listen to me.  Positive responses flowed in at a rate that was difficult to manage.  We seemed to have hit a chord with the public; thousands of artists from around the world volunteered to participate in our vision.

Growing out of control, I reached out to Frank for support and guidance, but I could not locate him.  Jessica, too, was unable to reach him.  When she informed me that if he did not show up soon, there would be no one in Europe to handle the project, I almost lost my mind.  Remembering my commitment to stay to the end, I continued with the task at hand, hoping he will show up soon.  Every so often I would hear about him from an Indian or Belgian artists informing me that he had referred them to the project, but they had no information as to his whereabouts.  I cannot describe my shock when he suddenly showed up at my apartment, months later.  Excited and relieved, I thought he was reconnecting with me so that he can catch up on the project, but I was wrong.  With little explanation other than relating his travels around the world, he left, never to be heard from again, not even at the momentous closing ceremony in Brussels in August 1998.

Armed with a vision and commitment, I quit my job at the Crisis Unit, and proceeded to enroll artists, musicians, galleries, museums, clubs and everyone I encountered to help me with the project.  Jessica finally came through in February 1998, finding a new coordinator for Europe, Peter Horemans.  He single handedly managed to organize and coordinate the hundreds of artists throughout Europe, pulling together truly incredible artistic performances and exhibits.  When I arrived in Brussels for the closing events, he and his wonderful volunteers graciously accompanied me to the numerous museums and galleries around Belgium, giving me first hand experience of the creative power we harnessed.  In New York we had over 67 arts events including opening night with a performance by Yoko Ono, Tibetan flutist and the privilege of hearing Robert Thurman and Harry Wu give dynamic and inspirational speeches.  At the end of the two months festival thousands of artists created hundreds of events in over forty countries on four continents.  Not only did we raise consciousness about the Tibetan plight, we also raised money to support the Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala.

Lessons learned.

When I reflected on this extraordinary journey, several things became clear to me.  The first is the difference a person can make when s/he is committed to a vision, and stands by it no matter the obstacles.  The second is how amazing human beings can be when given an opportunity to contribute their talents and skill for a greater good.  The third is that people come into our lives for different reasons.  While Frank disappeared shortly after he proposed his idea, his contribution as a pollinator was invaluable.  He planted the seed in me and Jessica which inspired us to take this project on and truly manifest magnificent and heartfelt events throughout the world.  Finally, and most importantly, I learned that our planet is our greater home and when we come together, we can accomplish anything.  In many ways, World artists for Tibet was a prelude to this audacious project we are currently embarking upon…Transform the Planet.

I ask you to look deep within yourself and ask, “How can I use my talents and gifts – my life – to make a positive difference on this planet.  Please join us in whatever capacity you have.

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