The last couple of years I have been teaching art classes to war veterans. Most of my students are male, but last spring I was asked to work with a group of female war veterans in a half way house about an hour from my home. Driving is not my favorite pass time and especially not in areas I am not familiar with.( I am directionally challenged) I worried more about the drive than about my first meeting with these women. There were some pretty rough, run down quarters for me to get lost in on my way, so when I saw the house I sighed with relief.
The feeling was short lived. After having rung the doorbell a stern, suspicious face appeared in the doorway. "Yeah?"
" Hi. I am Kerstin and I am here to teach art this afternoon."
" Oh, really? Is that so? " The middle aged, corpulent woman turned around and yelled with a voice that could awaken the dead." ART CLASS!! NOW!! UPSTAIRS!"
One of the war veteran women, a blond girl with a sullen face, was told to lead me upstairs to the third floor and show me around so I could set up. It was obvious that both of these women were stressed out and that dealing with me was not even on the bottom of their wish list.
The room was dark and I had to move all kinds of furniture around to create a space for us. Eventually about 9 women arrived. There they sat with arms crossed over their chests. Black and brown and white chins defiantly in the air and eyes that said; "What the hell are you here for?" I felt as if I just had stumbled into an enemy camp. I don't sweat much normally and never wear deodorant, but suddenly my armpits were damp and I could smell my own fear. I prayed that these women could not however, and in an attempt to prevent that I pressed my arms close to my sides. What had I been thinking? What had I expected, really? These women looked exceptionally tough, but why would that surprise me? No shrinking violets volunteer to go to war.
" My name is Kerstin" I started. I was born and raised in Sweden and have lived here in the US about half my life. I became a US citizen 4 years ago.”
Now they all looked me up and down to check out “The Swede”. My stomach made a noise. Had they noticed?
" I grew up on a farm where I was allergic to most things, like hay and animals and wildflowers, and I suffered from asthma, so I was not allowed to run and climb or jump. Art became my activity of choice and I discovered that when I got lost in the creative process I forgot about my troubles and my physical symptoms.
" I am on an inhaler." the woman closest to me offered.
" So, then you know how uncomfortable that can be," I said." It is scary when you don't feel like you can breathe, isn't it?"
" Yeah, it sucks."
"I am fortunate that I don't have asthma any more so..."
"How did you get rid of it?"
"I grew out of it. That is why I am almost 6 feet tall.”
A couple of the women chuckled and exchanged glances. I was not sure if this was a good or bad thing. They were pretty tall themselves and a looked whole lot sturdier than me, so I was sure they could take me if they decided to.
"I have done a lot of different kinds of work to support myself, but making pictures have always been the red thread through my life, my safe haven, and doing art can be very healing and therapeutic for all kinds of problems, and today I thought we would....."
"What is Sweden like?" "I hear they have good social programs there."
"Well, yes, we have socialized medicine and schools are usually free and..."
" What about the Veteran's homes there? Are they any good?" A young woman´s eyes met mine with something that resembled genuine curiosity.
"I don't think there are any of those. Sweden has not been in a war since 1814."
"What! You're messing with me?!!!"
"No Sweden is a neutral country."
"I want to move to Sweden.” the woman called out and everyone laughed."I am going!"
There was some reshuffling in the chairs and a couple of the women leaned forward towards me.
"So then, if Sweden is so wonderful, why did you come here?"
"I started out as an exchange student at a small, private University in Oklahoma.
"Oklahoma!! Far out!"
"Yeah, I had a Swedish/ Oklahoman accent for a while,” I said, and imitated how I used to talk my first year in the US.
More laughter. My shoulders dropped down a few centimeters away from my ears and I could hear my voice getting steadier.
"Yes, I was taking art classes there at Phillips University in Enid.. and speaking of art, let me show you what I had in mind for us to do today. I brought some really cool materials to work with.
The rest of the time we painted, bantered, laughed and came up with creative nicknames for each person. I told them I needed that in order to remember their names better. So we had "Sally the soul singer", "Shenika, the sex goddess", "Maria, the marvelous mime", "Wood worker Wilma" and all the others. I was simply "The Swede"
Through conversation I also learned that they already had had a drawing class before lunch.
"What? Today!?” I said. "Isn't that bit stupid to have two art classes on the same day?"
" That's what WE thought!” they chimed in.
" So, how come you did not say that to the people in charge here?" I wondered.
"Oh, nobody listens to us. We just get told what to do and where to be."
"Well, I could come another day, so let's see what we can do about spreading it out a bit more for you guys," I said.
"Really!! That would be awesome!"
For about half an hour everyone relaxed and got lost in their projects. I walked around and complimented them on their creations and offered helpful suggestions when invited. Then Sally looked up at me. "You know, all of us here have been through a lot of sh-t and seen a lot of hellish stuff. And most of us are on medication for anxiety and depression. I just want you to know that. Just so that you don't go home thinking we don't like you. Because..actually.. we do. You are cool.”
"You are coming back next week, aren't you? "Shenika asked.
I got all choked up.
" Hrrm. Yes, sure I will be back .Thanks for telling me. I appreciate that."
When it was time to clean up everyone stayed and helped and moved things back the way it was. We were a team.
I drove home with a greater appreciation of how a conflict often is a call for intimacy, for being seen and heard and respected. I wondered how many times in my life before I had missed that lesson and how many more times I would forget again and get caught up in polarity, before really finding the courage to totally live from a place of vulnerability and trust in our common humanity.