Denise VanBriggle is an expressive arts aficionado, reiki practitioner, and JourneyDance™ facilitator. She is a teacher, writer, dancer, and dreamer. Most of her days are spent exploring the power of the expressive arts to act as change agents, perspective shifters, and resilience builders. She owns Cityscape Consulting, which is devoted to writing, coaching, and integrative curriculum design. In 2014, Denise opened SHINE, a healing expressive arts studio sponsored by Cityscape. Her first book, Feeding the Roots of Self-Expression and Freedom – a collaborative venture with Jimmy Santiago Baca and Kym Sheehan – was just published by Cedar Tree Poetics, NM.
Q: When I search for “Denise VanBriggle” I find both CityScape Consulting and JourneyDance/reiki. Is all this you? What is it that you do?
DVB: Yes, this is all me. I retired in July 2011 after a long career in education. When I was still employed—during the years 1997-2011—a series of auto-immune problems surfaced for me. First it was Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, next it was fibromyalgia, and finally Type 2 Diabetes. I’ve always trusted my intuition, and I had a strong sense that my high stress level played a major role in all of these health concerns. Yoga provided relief when I struggled to get my Hashi’s under control. Physical therapy literally cured my fibromyalgia. Exercising and making changes in my diet enabled me to get off many medications and lose the Type 2 Diabetes label. How fascinating for me to experience first-hand movement as medicine.
I’ve always been a writer and understood from a young age the transformational, healing power of writing. Late in my career I enrolled in a doctoral program in Adult Education to conduct more formalized research, but when I decided to de-stress my life by retiring, I also decided to ditch my studies. What a tough moment for me. Up to that point, I don’t think I had quit anything. As difficult as it was, I truly believe it liberated me.
I know it sounds cliché’, but wonderful things began to happen to me once I let go of what was weighing me down. Poet Jimmy Santiago Baca invited me to collaborate on a book, Feeding the Roots of Self-Expression and Freedom, which was published this year. Simultaneously I rekindled my love of poetry and reconnected with a group of women I had written with over many years of our collective association with the National Writing Project.
Throughout the years of my health challenges, I read voraciously and became deeply interested in the connection between and among mind, body, and spirit. Along the way, I discovered many movement modalities, including JourneyDance™, which I loved so much I became a Certified Facilitator. I also explored a variety of healing modalities, including Reiki. I experienced such a positive benefit from understanding the movement of energy in my own body that I decided to become a Reiki Practitioner. To me, the body, mind, and spirit represent a sacred trinity. Disturbing any aspect of the trinity is synonymous to an assault on my well-being.
Q: What gives you balance? How do you find peace?
DVB: Personal balance comes through intentionally carving time in my schedule for embodied experiences like writing, dancing, painting, practicing yoga, and photographing nature’s wonders. I find peace through stillness, such as meditating, praying, stargazing, reading in the sunshine, sitting quietly on the patio with my husband and simply watching the clouds change formation, or catching a full moon rise. A strong sense of peaceful balance comes easily through helping others, whether my own family and friends or the complete strangers I assist as part of my work as an Official Visitor with the Pennsylvania Prison Society. I’ve learned that self-love isn’t selfish and I need to fill myself up so I have a reservoir of energy to give to others.
Q: What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?
DVB: I’d tell myself to lighten up, already! I am an empath and always way too sensitive and serious for my own good. I always found it easy to forgive others and overlook all of their flaws, but I had a damned hard time doing the same for myself. I’d be kinder and gentler to my young self. I’d stroke my own hair and say, “You are a child of the universe and you are perfectly imperfect just the way you are, sweet girl. And don’t you ever forget it.
Q: Where does inspiration come from? Who has inspired you?
DVB: Inspiration comes from silence—observing the amazing colors of the sunrise, watching the hummingbirds at my feeders, studying my grandchildrens’ faces, reading poetry. Inspiration comes from sound—enjoying early morning birdsong, drifting asleep to waves lapping the shoreline, listening to or singing my favorite tunes, hearing my family laughing, travelling to places I’ve never been before and experiencing each culture’s unique vibration and resonance. Inspiration comes from movement—dancing my body temple to music that stirs my soul, creating curricula to meet individual or group needs (ideas seemingly spring from a divine source and each idea inspires another), writing is a constant source of inspiration for me. And finally, inspiration comes from resilience—witnessing individuals rising above their own painful pasts, maneuvering around real or perceived obstacles, and ultimately finding their own joy.
I am blessed to have many inspiring men and women in my life, many of them still living and quite a few who have passed on, so this may prove to be the toughest question of all. How to choose? I decided to base my decision on two people whose lives reflect resilience: Poet Jimmy Santiago Baca and my own daughter, Erika Dupes. Jimmy was incarcerated for about 5 ½ years in the early 70’s and he has been a pivotal force in my life since the day we met in November of 2008. And my daughter has overcome some serious medical dilemmas but has not allowed them to define her. Both are a constant source of inspiration to me.
23 April 1977
Jimmy Santiago Baca
prison confines and destroys
it does, I know, no need to argue
the point, just look at these
infamous edifices thrashing out,
human beings like bait sardines,
but I cannot stand on this.
Yes, the great iron hand of prison
crushes all in its grasp,
the mind and soul become
filled with rotten fruits,
a gunnysack crumpled in a dark cell.
but to control your mind and soul
is to become a stronger hand,
embanking gently the loose clods
of ravaged and confused past
so the river of your heart
and clear streams of your soul
full and freely, into rich fallow beds
of freedom, waiting for you
even in prison,
even in prison; many will not understand this,
but I will say that we can
not today, tomorrow, or next month,
but at the very moment
one decides upon it.
Baca, J. (2001). A Place to Stand. New York, Grove Press. (poem appears on pp. 208-209).
In March of 2005 my daughter Erika lay in a hospital bed recuperating from lung surgery just a few months after the birth of her first child, Max. Around the same time, I had adopted a cell dog and started to correspond with the inmate who trained her. On my way to visit Erika in the hospital one day, a friend gave me Baca’s memoir proclaiming, “This book is a must read for anyone associated with the prison system!” I thought reading might calm my fear as I sat steady watch over my firstborn. This particular poem triggered a heart-opening, body-shaking cry, and I vowed to meet the man whose words precipitated such a powerful emotional purge. You see, on 23 April 1977 while Baca penned this poem from his cell, I lay in a hospital bed cradling three-day-old Erika whose unlikely prison had been her own mother’s womb. Who knew these wide hips of mine housed a pelvis too small to allow for safe passage through the birth canal! After a 24-hour struggle, the doctor was forced to cut her free.
Since 2005 Erika has endured a second lung collapse and surgery followed by two high-risk pregnancies producing granddaughters Emma and Avery. Today, I am blessed with three healthy grandchildren and a beautiful, healthy, and active daughter who has not allowed her health challenges to dampen her positive spirit. I met Jimmy Santiago Baca back in 2008, just as I began to heal from the trauma of watching Erika suffer. Jimmy single-handedly reignited my social justice fire and my love of writing. In many ways, words saved me. And the double whammy in my life at that time? My son was deployed to Iraq. It was definitely a “dark night of the soul” period for me, but I bounced back.
Through their daily resilience and courage, Erika and Jimmy model passionate, compassionate, and purposeful living. They urge us all to
Decide in this moment.
It’s never too late.
Q: Do you have any pet projects you’d like to share?
A few years ago Jimmy introduced me to a young film director, Daniel Glick, who wanted to make a documentary film based on Jimmy’s memoir A Place to Stand. I worked with Daniel from the early stages as he criss-crossed the country to learn from experts in the industry. I had the pleasure of introducing him to my dear friend Bill Isler, President of Family Communications (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) who introduced both of us to director Carl Kurlander (St. Elmo’s Fire). I also served on one of the fundraising teams through two successful Kickstarter campaigns. What a rush to know we raised enough money to see the film through to final cut! That milestone was reached on 5/25/14. I personally contributed more time and money to this effort than to any other charitable cause throughout my 59 years on the planet. I’m proud of the small role I played in this effort because I believe the Jimmy’s story holds the potential to change the course of other people’s lives, just as it has mine.
Jimmy also connected me to the phenomenal Penny Alsop when I visited Upaya Zen Center. Penny was moving through the chaplaincy program there and asked me if I’d be a part of her web-based project www.greatbigcrazylove.com How could I resist a project with such an awesome title? And so began some creative non-fiction writing that set me upon a serious path of self-discovery.
The final project is SHINE, a healing expressive arts studio for adults located at 4400 Linglestown Rd., Suite 101, Harrisburg, PA. It opens today (6/1/2014) and I’m thrilled to kick off the first summer season with three intimate day-long SHINEshops. The initial offering, Exploring Stillness and Finding YOUR Voice, happens on Saturday, June 28th, from 9:30 AM-3:30 PM. For further information, visitors to your site can hop over and visit me at Cityscape Consulting www.cityscape8.com
This is my consulting business and the place where I draw together all of my loves. I’ve given myself the title of Curator of Creativity rather than “owner,” which is a bit boring and doesn’t really doesn’t describe what I do.
Q: Now that the book is finished, what are you currently writing?
DVB: Well, I’ve been a closet poet for a long time, and within the last year I’ve decided to step out into the light. I’m learning to trust my own rhythm and cadence. I always felt pretty comfortable and confident with narrative writing, but less so with poetry. I’ve also learned that the only way to face my fear is to move straight through it. My next project is a collection of my own poetry. It’s a work in progress, so stay tuned.