Souls in Motion: A Place of Hospitality

by Julia Demaree-Raboteau

Souls in Motion is a studio space in Manhattan’s Harlem district, a place to awaken and nourish the artistic spirit within each of us, a space for painting, for cooking, for gardening, for writing, for stretching, for sewing, for the fine art of listening, for silence and reflection, a place where each person is welcome, a room of hospitality. At Souls in Motion, we learn to make room for another just as Mary made room for Christ in her womb.

Before I came to Harlem to work, I had read a study by Susan Sheehan of a mental patient, Sylvia Frumpkin, that appeared in The New Yorker called “Is There No Place On Earth For Me?” The tragic shadow of Sylvia Frumpkin’s life changed me. I was amazed by the random chaos and downward spiral that characterized her life. Each day, Louise Rosenberg and I try to answer this plea with a resounding “Yes! There is a place — right here at Souls in Motion.”

For eighteen years, Louise and I, with the help of many others, have been trying to provide a safe haven against chaos. In the beginning, our dream was to foster creative expression within a daytime rehabilitation program. We were encouraged to develop small cottage industries. But as the years went by, the word “creativity” began to take on a broader meaning for us. Our project began to come alive under the aegis of community. Creativity in our relationships with each other assumed an equal footing with making the beautiful artifacts that grace our room.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that mental illness comes from unkindness to people when they are children. Whether you believe this or not, there can never be enough kindness to make up for the deep afflictions of painful, abusive childhoods. At Souls in Motion hugs are 98 percent of our job. Almost everyone wants one. Louise and I love the aesthetic beauty of our room, but we know that the main event is the hugging. My “off” days are when I forget this lesson.

The umbrella for Souls in Motion is Community Support System (CSS), a rehabilitation program in Harlem that has been providing psychiatric services for adults for over twenty-five years. CSS is housed in a former public high school building, the Oberia Dempsey Center, along with many other social services. The doors of Souls in Motion open early to offer breakfast to our clients and stay open seven days a week. We also provide lunch, travel cards, classes in reading, writing, current affairs, symptom management, recreational activities, counseling and medication, and we offer a limited number of shared living apartments.

Our clinical director, Willie James Prescott, was there when CSS opened its doors in 1979. A consummate father-type, he runs the program with a healthy balance of compassion and grit and is adored by our clients, now numbering over 100. His personal tone sets the stage for a dynamic and caring program. Our business officer, Ann Armoogan, might take time to cook a delicious meal for the clients. Retired staff members return to volunteer. Social work and psychiatric interns come from colleges in the city. Volunteers offer their gifts. Guests are numerous.

Souls in Motion is hidden away in a basement room reached through a maze of winding corridors that open into a large studio space often mistaken for a museum. The actual physical space is enormous and divided by low partitions that allow visibility into all of its parts. Everyone can see and hear each other. This arrangement helps to create a mutual respect for the people and the room. Clients who come regularly to work get their own desk or workspace, while others may come to enjoy the quiet, sleep off the effects of their medication, attend a small class, or pet or feed the animals. We try to strike a balance between privacy and community.

Our gifts define our respective roles in the studio. Louise cooks two delicious meals a day, tends to our menagerie of animals, directs the sewing projects and leads us in exercise classes. I promote art, take photographs, publish the clients’ books and tend the garden. Although we look quite different physically, it is common for people to confuse us and call us by each other’s names. They say we present with the same spirit.

One of the oldest desks in the room belongs to William. From the beginning we were given the gift of William who keeps a spiritual pulse on all things. He is able to transform his personal psychosis into selfless prayer to God. His sleepless nights are often spent listening to news on the radio and praying for victims of floods, earthquakes, starvation, shootings, wars, rapes, global turmoil and recently, the tsunami and the Katrina hurricane. His faith in God knows no boundaries. “God is Love” is often on his lips and in his drawings. He is also a visionary. He dreamt about the collapse of the Berlin Wall the night before it fell. In his dream, Louise and I, wearing nursing aprons, were giving first-aid to people. I asked him to do a drawing of his dream. We use his portrait of us as nurses on our calling cards. (His dream was doubly prophetic as we enrolled in an acupuncture program three years later.)

Not far from William sits Lorna — mother, cook, poet, peer advocate and gospel singer. We published her first book of poetry, Love Always, now in its third printing. Like William, she is filled with gratitude for the gift of life and prays at our children’s altar. Many of our clients’ children have been raised in the foster care system. Lorna prays from a little book that lists their names. She also leads us in intercessional prayer at the Orthodox altar in the small niche, a comforting place to be when our wounds and worries of the day overwhelm us.

Two of our favorite prayers come from one of our elder clients who says before she gets out of bed in the morning, “Thank you Lord for another day. A day I never saw before. And thank you for waking me clothed in my right mind and for having all the activity in my limbs.” At mealtime she bows her head to say, “Lord, we thank you for this food. By Thy hands we are softly fed. Give us, Lord, our daily bread. Amen. Amen.”

One day, when William was down in the dumps, Lorna wrote him a poem to cheer him up, “if I bite you, I ain’t gonna let nobody see me bite you, I’d love to hug you because you’re for real, you know the deal, I love your laughter, so if you’re gonna bite me, make it snappy…” The “if I bite you” poem became the impetus and the title for our first book of the clients’ writings and drawings.

Lorna is skeptical of “treatment” centers. She found us through her friend James whose enthusiasm for the studio had convinced her to at least visit. He promised her that Souls in Motion was something different. At our initial meeting, we all felt as if we had known each other for years. In 1999 she wrote these words for her presentation at a state conference that she and I attended:

“What I have received has been unbelievable. We are thankful for all the true love we have received. I have given much thought to this, not only as a human being, but also as a spiritual being. And I believe that Our Almighty Creator has guided me in my also becoming a peer counselor at Souls in Motion. I have been basically drawn out of the shell that I had been in. With the support I have been able to remain out of the hospital for five years, which is something that earlier on in life seemed to me to be an unbelievable impossibility. I also give credit to my hard work on myself, because in order for my medication to work, I have to work with my inner self as well as my outer self. I would like to see all of the clients progress, as they have many talented abilities.”

As a graduate of the CSS program, Lorna chose to stay and redefine her role in the program. She apprentices with Louise in the kitchen, checks in with Libbie, a weekly volunteer, about alternative health practices, and compares notes with another volunteer who used to be on psychotropic medication. She helps clients help other clients and encourages her peers to speak up for themselves. Her version of peer counseling is imbued with a spiritual dimension. She and her daughter, Renee, lead us in prayer and gospel singing.

Compassionate like his friend Lorna, James can pull himself out of his own depression to soothe another person’s suffering. Once he told me that if he hadn’t been eaten alive by mental depression and guilt, he would have become a social worker or a therapist. I told him that he was already one, and that his generosity was indispensable. For three years he has been at a state hospital and just recently returned to our community. Our doors are always open to welcome a returnee.

James’ gentle nature was acknowledged by Jack, our resident rabbit, who would make a sudden stop to let him pet him as he was hopping freely around the Souls in Motion habitat. Over the long span of his life, he allowed only a few people to pet him. With bared teeth, he set clear guidelines for touching. Yet he courted Louise by chewing on her velvet pant legs and circled Orville during his extensive philosophical pacing.

It is Ballerina, a white cat with soulful eyes, who has been queen of our roost. Scruffy and thin, she was sighted hanging out in the parking lot during the Raboteau wedding reception that was held at Souls in Motion. We adopted her just weeks before she gave birth to five kittens in a box under the computer. After some proper eating, her sleek body could be seen mock-hunting in the aviary, darting out playfully at Jack as he hopped by, and lying with Fred, our African Leopard tortoise, under his heat lamp. Her calm energy is a balm for our room and medicine for those clients who are afraid of cats. She allows gentle petting, alerts us to visitors entering the room, and sleeps muse-like in the large basket in the middle of the round table during the writing class.

Besides learning from our animals, we get many lessons from each other. One of our most delightful teachers is Ethel whose deep faith in God and immense love of life inspires us when life looks grim. Her buoyancy is a gift for the chronic depression that her husband James wrestles with. For many years their marriage has been an inspiration for other CSS couples. Against the emotional and economic difficulties of mental illness, and the years of being separated from her husband, she would seek out the calm waters of the Hudson River and light candles at St. John the Divine Cathedral. Her irrepressible love of life is captured in her autobiography, The Adventures of Ethel Jones. Lately year she has been a receptionist for CSS and sometimes dreams about working a “real” job. Our program encourages clients to graduate and move on when they can. We do some pre-vocational training and work with agencies that are set up for job training skills. They can also graduate and continue to attend the program. Our doors are always open.

One of our most talented artists is Joseph, who has never stopped drawing since childhood. He used to mount shows in his bedroom with the monster pictures made from his mother’s brown shopping bags for the delight of his friends. When his residence moved him to an adult home in Coney Island five years ago, Joseph’s attendance dropped dramatically, but our strong belief in his creative gift has spurred his return. Now when he makes the two-hour subway ride to Harlem, we see and applaud his new work, shore him up with art supplies, and exchange hugs. His work has been shown in an invitational show at the Ward Nasse Gallery in Soho, in a group show of Harlem Artists at Riverside Church, as a media and art event in our former Souls in Motion Garden, and was featured in Double Take magazine. He has a permanent show of his banners and pastels in our studio.

Five years ago, we were gifted by the presence of Anne, a painter from Paris. She began by doing quick black and white sketches of the clients and eventually moved to full-length oil portraits. Anne’s unabashed love of her subject matter made “the portrait experience” a spiritual gift for our clients.

We are also blessed to have a client who makes a mandola every day. He gives all his work away, announcing the name of the lucky recipient before he starts. Only occasionally will our studio get one and it’s a waste of time to beg for one! Most of them end up in the communal dayroom/cafeteria and in staff offices. For him, making art is a labor of love and is seen as a way to give another a gift of oneself or thanks for “services rendered.” This is an attitude towards the “art object” that makes complete sense to us.

Then there is Mary, creator of “Bummie Nose” dolls. (“Bummie Nose” is a term of endearment.) Mary cuts, sews and stuffs her cloth dolls with great speed, braiding and twisting yarn for their elaborate hairdos. I am in charge of sewing the faces and the clothes, though I simply can’t keep up with her swift hands. We have been quite successful at finding boutiques to sell Mary’s dolls.

No one is allowed to dip into Louise’s “Fabric Library” without her permission. This is a magical corner where rayon, cotton, velvet, tapestry, leather, rip stop, canvas and unbleached muslin are folded neatly on rows and rows of shelves. Mary and other clients often make quilts for their children or their grandchildren. Louise supervises the design and the sewing of these quilts, as well as the dolls, potholders and our specialty, catnip filled mice for cats. Some of the quilts were featured during African-American month in the Ethnic Hall at the Museum of Natural History.

Everything is made “from scratch.” Louise makes gingerbread by hand, grinding fresh ginger and Chinese herbs, and it is her famously healthy food that gave rise to the name “Soup Seminar” for Albert Raboteau’s weekly writing group that he has been teaching for nearly a decade. Before our midday meal on Thursdays, Al begins the class by suggesting a topic for the day. While the writers are making a new entry into their journals, all is quiet. Then we can hear their voices as they take turns reading their work. Often the thinking can stir up the “bittersweet” experiences of one’s life, especially for a newcomer to the group, and everyone listens respectfully. And then it’s time to eat!

Juliette, a regular in the writing circle, writes “The love that the Most High has lavished on us is the greatest love of all. / He has given us help in times of need / It is the greatest love of all. He has forgiven our sins. / It is the greatest love of all. He has given us hope in times of despair. / It is the greatest love of all. He has shown us kindness. / It is the greatest love of all. He has shown us mercy. /It is the greatest love of all.”

One of our young writers uses a series of poems to describe her journey into schizophrenia and the arduous struggle to bring clarity and purpose back into her life. She writes, “There are times when I do not understand how my life grew up in flashes. It is like a death sentence for a young lady wanting to be successful in life. I like to look at my life as a car ride where I drive off the cliff and survive.” Recently, we hosted our third book-reading event with the publication of her memoir, A Glance Into The Mirror.

Over the years we have seen many folks come and go, and then return, with both a surprised yet relieved “Oh, are you still here!” Layers of artifacts adorn our studio and bear witness to nearly two decades of much caring and spirited expression — masks made of clients’ faces, wreaths woven from grapevines from the huge garden William and I tended for twelve years, photo blow-ups of clients from the thousand of photographs that make up our photo library, paper dragons, reconstituted street furniture, drawings and sculpture, gifts from the many volunteers and visitors who have been part of our studio, and memorial scrapbooks for clients who have passed.

Our community has experienced many deaths. One that hit us hard was that of William Gibbons, who died young. An uncomplaining human being, he had managed to hide from us his painful stomach ulcers that eventually hemorrhaged in the middle of the night. In grieving and honoring him we became aware of the immense role he had played in our lives, and in memory, still does. He loved the Souls in Motion studio and was imbued with its free spirit. At breakfast, he might surprise us with “sweet potato pies” he had made at three in the morning. The fact that they often arrived upside-down only increased their value, disqualifying them as objects of perfection and making them acts of love. Louise bought him a double-tiered pie basket but no device, however well designed, could contain his effervescent style. In Al’s group he wrote a poem called “Recipe for a Hot Day”: “A tall glass of cool breeze with ice cubes. Water sandwich with two cushions of fresh air.” Yet his “lightness of being” public persona was deceptive. Privately, he spent hours amassing articles about the injustices that mankind inflicts on each other.

We invited him to Princeton to attend the luncheon and unveiling ceremony of Al’s portrait as Dean of the Graduate School. When I met his train, there was no William. Disappointed, we drove on to the Graduate Dining hall where a large wooden door opened up magically for us to enter. Behind the door was, of course, William who ritualistically presented Al with a turquoise champagne glass. During lunch, he sat with the Raboteau clan and was in heaven as President Shapiro made a toast to the first African-American Graduate School Dean in the history of Princeton University. Back in Harlem, Anne honored William in turn when she chose him as the subject for her first full length oil painting. He could hardly conceal his delight.

There were two memorial services for William: a small intimate one with live music and poems in his honor; and one at a funeral parlor that was attended to overflowing by his relatives and many of our clients. Among things we learned was that he frequently visited his fellow clients when there were hospitalized.

A week after he died, a new client, Robert, came to work in our studio, also filled with the desire to express the creative spirit. Whereas William’s spirit was airy, Robert’s is dense. Whereas Gibbon’s work fell apart with the slightest vibration, Robert’s work is firmly nailed together. Whereas Gibbon’s work disappeared from the studio overnight, Robert’s wooden sculptures seem to accumulate into a great forest. The Raboteau household is blessed with four of his artifacts, including a Sacred Heart of Jesus statue.

Al and I are hopeful about linking up different communities for the benefit of each of them. Lorna, James and Ethel and a few others have stayed with us in Princeton and visited our church, Mother of God, Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Mission. One of our elder clients spends a week with us during Nativity and Pascha. Two years ago, our choir, priest and parishioners from Princeton visited Souls in Motion for one of our holiday sales. Many folks from our Orthodox community-at-large have visited us. Distance and busyness are deterrents to implementing this dream but we are always on the lookout for new opportunities.

One year, when it looked as if the Souls in Motion program might close or change for the worst, we realized how fragile our creation really was. Our dear Orthodox friend Lyn Breck, consoled us by saying “You know, it will be okay. Souls in Motion is a place in the heart.”

Julia Demaree-Raboteau founded Souls in Motion Studio nearly twenty years ago, which she runs with her partner Louise Rosenberg. Now living in Princeton, she is a member of the Mother of God Orthodox Mission in Plainsboro, New Jersey. She commutes to Harlem several times a week.