Rites of Passage: Meeting our Guides and Demons

By Michelle Bosco

It’s been two weeks since our NCAS-I team returned from Cambodia. Upon my return, I was flooded with questions such as, “How was it?” “Are you still jetlagged?” “What was your favorite part?” Although I appreciated my loved ones’ interest, I was overwhelmed by the vagueness and overly general questions and it felt difficult to answer them. I noticed my hesitation and resistance to offering any details. I’m not exactly sure why; maybe I wasn’t ready yet, or maybe it felt easier to put my experience in a little box that I could revisit later.

However, my choice to withhold information didn’t last too long. I began to share little pieces of my experience here and there. I realized this isn’t just something I can store away. It’s something that needs to be shared, needs to be heard, and needs to continue to live and be passed along. It’s clear this project has depth, passion, and heart and it’s filled with of a ton of stories. Stories filled with beauty, stories filled with fear and hurt, and even some stories filled with a little bit of magic.

Each member of NCAS-I has their own unique experience and I feel so fortunate to be able to share with you not only my story, but theirs as well. Although I’m sure I could ramble on and on (If you know me well, then you definitely know this to be true) and give you a very detailed report of our experience from each day, I feel it’s best for you to hear about it through the different rites of passage we encountered. I also want to reveal stories about the guides we met and the demons we faced along the way.

Before I do so, I’ll briefly explain what rites of passage mean. Rites of passage are a category of rituals that mark the passage of a person through the life cycle, from one stage through another over time, and from one role or social position to another (Campbell, 1949). These rituals have taken place in all cultures over the world, integrating human and cultural experiences with biological destiny: birth, reproduction, and death. This concept was originally articulated by Arnold van Gennep. In 1907, he outlined a form inherent in all rites of passage: separation, transition, and incorporation (Gennep, 1960). Van Gennep stated that a person had to be separated from one role before he or she could be incorporated into a new one. The ceremonies and rituals allow people to move forward and let go of the pre-existing roles. They can also support people to embrace transitions with acceptance and gratitude.

One of NCAS-I’s first rites of passage ceremonies occurred on May 12th (2 days before we left for Cambodia). One of our supervisor’s, Katie, led a “letting go” ceremony. We were instructed to write down on a small scrap of paper, something we wanted to let go of, or something we wanted to leave rather than take to Cambodia. After we completed this part, we walked outside and began the actual ceremony. With snow still on the ground, we shivered as we huddled close together. Katie set her charcoal incense burner on a rock, and one by one we placed our tiny scraps of paper inside of the burner.

As we inhaled the smell of sandalwood and frankincense and watched the smoke rise, Megan read the poem, In Black Water Woods by Mary Oliver. The last line reads, “To live in this world you must be able to do three things; to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” These words struck me because I knew it was time to leave behind that which no longer served me, and embark on a journey filled with a realm of unknowns. As I watched my words burn and disintegrate, I felt fear creep up inside me.

I was afraid and resistant to leave my comfort for discomfort, yet I knew relief would come from making the choice to let go. This rite of passage was parallel to Van Gennep’s first stage, separation. This stage is characterized by separating from the existing awareness of all that is familiar and secure (Gennep, 1960). I assumed I would remain in this stage early on in our trip. Even though I was well-informed of our travel details and schedule, I knew the comfort and familiarity I had in the states would be stripped away as soon as I landed in Cambodia. Not only was I facing challenges in adjusting to a new environment, I was also grieving the losses from my old role that I recently let go of.

There were others that felt similarly; anchored in the separation stage, and preparing to explore fears and expectations brought on by this new change. It was difficult for some of us to adjust and arrive, and due to our vastly different histories, we had to cross the threshold and officially “arrive” in our own ways.

For Liz, she officially “arrived” in Cambodia when she decided to return to Angkor Wat all by herself. She was able to leave the group and travel solo because she faced fears that she still carried from nine years ago when she backpacked through India and Nepal alone. Liz said, “I had endured some pretty scary, unsafe, and ongoing situations on that trip related to being vulnerable, naive, female, and not in control of where I went and with whom. Setting out at dawn with my art supplies, a cell phone, and a tuk tuk driver was an affirmation that now, nine years later, I am possessed of far greater resources. I can trust my instincts of what feels safe and unsafe, and have the assertiveness and autonomy to be 100 percent responsible for where I go, and with whom. This sense of safety allowed me greater flexibility and openness to explore on my own terms.”


Artwork by Liz Maher

Liz’s example of arriving is part of Gennep’s transition stage. The transition stage is when the grip of the old period merges with the new period. (Gennep, 1960). Liz merged the two periods by facing her fears head on. She was also in full flight of the adventure and ready for what was to come next. There were other members of NCAS-I that had profound experiences in this stage.

For part of this Service-Learning Practicum, we studied Cambodian culture and spent a great deal of time learning about the Khmer Rouge. We also attended a circus performance in Battambang, Cambodia before visiting the Killing Fields and S-21 in Phnom Penh. The performance beautifully portrayed the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, and it also left an imprint on our team, knowing that the arts were allowing a way for the Cambodian people to tell their story and express themselves, and help combat trauma that so many of them faced. Emma was deeply moved and did her own response art around this subject. Her artwork depicts how the Cambodian culture handles tragedy and how they have the strength to carry on.


Artwork by Emma Ehrenthal

When I look at her painting, I see resiliency and hope. Perhaps it’s the color palette she used, or perhaps it reminds me of how I felt on that night. Either way, I know I felt completely different after attending the Killing Fields, S21, and while I was reading Arn Chorn Pond’s book, Never Fall Down. I felt defeated, depressed, and sick to my stomach.

I struggled as I tried to process my feelings around the Khmer Rouge, and I realized my discomfort wasn’t going to vanish just yet. I had to face my own demons during this transition stage. I was disoriented and felt out of control. I watched my doubts about my performance working with clients constantly pop up like some sort of annoying snooze button that never turned off. I even questioned how I was showing up in our NCAS-I group and I repeatedly wondered if what I was offering was enough. On top of this, I felt guilty for having these concerns, especially when I was reminded about what the people of the Khmer Rouge had to endure. My problems seemed trivial and I tried to conceal them.

With some time and space, I gained clarity and understood what this highly uncomfortable place was. It was my way of being in the transition stage. When I finally realized this, I no longer brushed away my feelings and made them seem small or unimportant. I also had the support of a few amazing women who served as my guides. They allowed me to recognize my innate power and reclaim what I forgotten; to trust myself. I will be forever grateful for their patience, guidance, and love.


Artwork by Michelle Bosco

I moved forward and continued consuming, ingesting, absorbing, all around me, and when it was time, purged and released what I needed to. I realized the doubts I once had about myself were merely a result of trying to meet everyone’s expectations (an impossible task by the way), so I freed myself and made a decision to take in only what I wanted and needed to.

This realization brought relief and left me feeling liberated and excited about the possibilities of growth that a new beginning holds. Gennep describes this as the incorporation stage (Gennep, 1960). In this stage, people emerge from the pain and struggle and see that the wait was well worth it. I felt as though I resurrected my creative and powerful energy and as though I had so much more to offer others. Each member of NCAS-I gained something different. For example, Krystel gained the gift companionship. She viewed each close relationship as an opportunity for growth and vowed to bring this gift back home, especially to her fiancé, Andrew, who she will marry in less than two months. Others gained clarity, wisdom, confidence, hope, the list goes on! To mark this transition, each member of the group made their own necklaces to symbolize self-recognition and deep understanding.


Artwork by Michelle Bosco

Our last night in Cambodia ended with magic. (Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to forget about it) We took a boat ride down the river and stopped as soon as we saw a tree that appeared to have white Christmas lights on it. As we moved closer we were amazed and delighted to find that it was fireflies. It was pure magic, like nothing I’ve ever seen before! My gaze was locked on the tree until I realized it was time for one last ritual before returning home. Each of us were given candles and one by one we placed them in little boats made from leaves and released them in the water. As I watched each one float away, some burning out, and some still flickering, I was reminded of another gift I gained. Joseph Campbell describes these gifts as boons, or jewels that one carries after a voyage. (Campbell, 1949) One of my great boons is my awareness; there can be no light without entering the darkness, and with each descent into darkness, the light shines ever more brightly. I know the next transition may pull me into the darkness, but this time I will be able to navigate the journey more gracefully. I can trust that I am exactly where I need to be.


Artwork by Sue Wallingford

Author/artist note: Please do not use the images without permission. Thank you.


Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. Bollingen Foundation (1st edition).

Gennep, A. v. (1960). The rites of passage. Chicago: University of Chicago.


Arn Chorn Pond and Cambodian Living Arts

by Krystel Chamberlain

After visiting the solemn and heart-breaking sites of the Killing Fields and S-21 prison while in Phnom Penh, we spent our last day there meeting a most charismatic and inspirational survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. We went to Cambodian Living Arts which is a non-profit organization promoting the traditional arts of Cambodia. Arn Chorn Pond, who describes his complex past as a child soldier turned killer turned politician turned musician and spokesperson, shared with us how music saved his life. Arn was separated from his family at the age of eleven and forced into labor by the Khmer Rouge. One day he raised his hand when asked if anyone could play an instrument. Most musicians, intellectuals, doctors, and teachers were killed when admitting to their skills. Arn was lucky. He survived execution and starvation only by pleasing Khmer Rouge officers by playing propaganda music. He was the quickest learner. The slower children were killed. He learned techniques from a master musician before the old man was killed. Music saved his life. He played propaganda music until he was forced to be a child soldier and eventually escaped to Thailand at the end of the war. He was adopted by an American family and was sent to the United States where he attended school. The book “Never Fall Down” tells his story during the war. Please see my blog post from April 2014 for more detail on this, and Megan’s previous post about the Killing Fields.

In 1998, Arn returned to Cambodia in search of any surviving master musicians who could teach the traditional music and performing arts to the younger generation. It was not easy. Out of the two million people the Khmer Rouge exterminated, 90% were educated artists, musicians, doctors, etc. Arn founded Cambodian Living Arts to provide an avenue for traditional Khmer arts to live on. Old Masters are supported and earn a living by teaching their art forms to impoverished students who then can earn a living by performing rather than turning to the streets.  Students are even given a scholarship to attend college in whatever they would like to study such as computers, medicine, or education. Either way, the arts will be an important force in their lives.


Cambodian Living Arts also creates an opportunity for the world to witness these art forms. They put on performances and festivals and allow the public to tour their studio and observe a class in action. That’s what we did. We were welcomed into the studio by Taro (promoter, and also a guitar player in his free time) and met a class made up of one female teacher, two female students, one male student, and two male musicians. Taro translated for us and explained that they were practicing Yike Opera which is a traditional Khmer performance with dance, singing, Khmer violin, and drum. It is not known exactly when and where Yike originated but is guessed to be influenced by the many different people who occupied Cambodia over the ages. Arn soon joined us in the classroom. It was clear he had a lot of pride about his students. The actors shared with us their usual practice which involved flexibility stretches, dancing, and singing while musicians played the drum and Khmer violin. In Yike Opera, all actors must be able to sing, dance, and act. They performed a short song from the Opera they were practicing and it was so beautiful! My heart swelled and I could not stop smiling. I had hoped to see a performance while on this trip and here it was! Such delicate and graceful movements! These students were very talented. They demonstrated several of the intricate hand gestures and we gasped at how their fingers could curl backward. That explains all the stretching! There are over 2,500 different gestures, each one with a unique meaning. We witnessed hand gestures that symbolized “to plant”, “grow”, “flower”, “fruit”, and “ripen” to name a few. More involved gestures stood for “shy”, “angry”, and “to love someone”.

Just when I thought this couldn’t get any more interesting, we were invited to try some! The Master teacher and her students tried to help us force our joints into directions they just wouldn’t go! Amidst laughter and groans we gained even more respect for what these performers could do. We were then invited to learn some dance moves (which came easier or harder to some of us compared to the stretching)!

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Afterwards, we all sat down for a snack and to talk with Arn. We asked him why he started the Cambodian Living Arts Center. He shared how music saved his life over and over again when playing the flute allowed him to cope with memories and flashbacks from his traumatic past. He said that witnessing the beautiful music played by his students and the Masters he has found has brought him to tears. Tears that had so desperately needed to be shed, but could not as a child because to cry would mean death. As art therapy students, we could understand how powerful and therapeutic it is to show emotion through art, music, dance, etc.

Arn reminded us that we are all connected, even when we return to the United States. “We are all the same. We laugh the same. We cry the same”. We affect each other. The U.S. affected Cambodia when they dropped bombs there in the 1960’s. As an American and Cambodian, Arn feels deeply conflicted about this. Artists must be a strong voice in the world to communicate human emotion. Then maybe we can all remember this connection. Then maybe we can help to stop bombings, killings, and mass genocides.


I want to thank Arn Chorn Pond and his class at Cambodian Living Arts for sharing such a special afternoon with us.  It was truly a hi-light of the trip for me and I will forever remember this example of resiliency and devotion to the arts and human expression.




Walking the Killing Fields: Life, Death. Body, Earth.

 By Megan Nemire

It took almost three weeks on this trip to Cambodia, but I became sick. Maybe I ate something questionable, or assumed safety in a glass of ice tainted with bacteria my Western body system cannot process. However it happened, I was incapacitated for a day, traveling only to the restroom and bed, as well as the recesses of my fearful feelings I hadn’t acknowledged previously.

Though it was clearly a physical reaction, my body’s natural response fighting something foreign or dangerous, I became quite curious about the relevance of this timely… (how do I say it politely…) purging of the system.

I had taken in a lot over the past three weeks. We all had. Our clients and many strangers we passed on the streets had experienced the depths of human experience. Trauma. Domestic abuse. Sexual exploitation. Aftermath of genocide and political upheaval. So which of the many hardships was too much for me to digest?

Oh yes. I had finished reading Never Fall Down (2012) the day before the sharp pains seized my stomach. In this book, McCormick tells the story of Arn Chorn Pond‘s life*, a haunting journey through the terrors of the extremist group, the Khmer Rouge, led in shadow by Pol Pot. The following provides historical context according to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (2004) and McCormick et al. Writing this section helped me address my deep need to make a shred of sense about something truly incomprehensible. Liking clarity for myself, at first I wondered if this was the coping strategy of intellectualization, using thought to override anxiety of emotion (Vaillant, 1977). However, no. I am attempting to align the cognitive with the emotional. I want to understand at least a sense of why these atrocities took place. I wanted to know the Khmer Rouge’s goals when waging this genocide. This historical piece is a practice of acceptance. It also provides essential context for the personal sharing afterward, about my experience walking through the Killing Fields.

The Khmer Rouge Genocide

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge, a group of peasants throughout the country of Cambodia, intentionally selected for their status as “base people” or working class, seized all of the major cities and marched the people out. Led by Pol Pot who mostly hid safely in Thailand, the Khmer Rouge was created as a group of former teachers, many influenced by the French Communist party. They were people who were themselves educated, and with social privilege.

Under the guise of evacuating homes to escape attacks from the Americans or Vietnamese, and with threat of immediate death by gunshot or bayonet slashing from these black-cloaked Khmer Rouge soldiers, the people of the cities gathered their essential belongings and marched out into the countryside. There were hundreds of thousands of people in the crowds, many starving and dying along the way, every step forward was given the promise of care from Angka, a new word to them at the time, which means, the organization.

Those that were forced to march were the educated people, those with land or wealth, they were the artists, musicians, teachers, doctors, anyone with special training. I began to consider the psychology of cutting off shadow parts—educated people leading the uneducated to kill the educated. Deep breath, and I continue my descent into history. The Khmer Rouge was guided by “four interrelated principles: (1) total independence and self-reliance, (2) preservation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) total and immediate economic revolution, and (4) complete transformation of Khmer social values.” (Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, 2004). They set out to “rusticate the cities”, to return Cambodia to a completely agrarian society, to strip away the classes and restore ‘equality’ to the people. They prohibited money, the free market, religion, education, and anything that contested their mission. Schools, churches, temples, and hospitals were shut down, and changed into prisons, granaries, and “reeducation camps”.

My stomach surges as I type, because the truth of the history fades to darkness. The people were forced into labor of growing rice on overworked soil, tasked with impossible yield goals. Many died as they worked. Many were killed mercilessly, accused of being traitors, pit against their family members and forced between condemning themself or their brother to death. Some went to the prisons, where they were tortured. Those that survived were sent to the killing fields, where they were murdered, and buried in mass graves. Families were separated into work camps for men, women, and children. Growing rice all day and night, many died from exhaustion, starvation, disease, and broken hearts. The Khmer Rouge continually restricted their criteria to let a person live, and many of the soldiers ordered to murder others were then killed themselves, declared as traitors.

It is estimated that 2 to 3 million people were murdered during the Khmer Rouge regime, approximately 30% of the Khmer population. They were murdered by their own people.


It is important– actually, essential– to acknowledge, to discuss, to let the heart break even if for a moment when reading these truths. Choeung Ek’s mission of education and sharing what happened is held in hopes that if we talk about these horrors, we can prevent them from repeating. Or at least we can try. Perhaps, dear reader, you might take a moment of silence in honor the souls whose lives were taken during this time.


 “A little life amongst the death” 

Response art, Megan Nemire

I have yet to find a way to honor and submit to the horror of these truths. And it seems, this lack of ability to cope with genocide and murder is quite a natural response. For me, reading a personal account of one man’s survival in a terrifying time built up in my gut like a strain of mutated human genetics. It was too much for my system to handle. So I vomited it up, let it all pour out. My body was rebelling against the truth.

Yet, after that day of somatic release, my system regulated enough for me to stand up again. My stomach restored a working balance, while still carrying a dull pain, and the moments of relief extended. My own was a parallel process of what I had read, only I was given the time and space to heal. The children I read about, children that Arn Chorn Pond knew during his own life, would have been taken for their ‘rest’ by death in a pile of bodies in a mango grove. This realization was horrifying and humbling. Since I get to live, I have the responsibility to share their story.

Visiting Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

Carrying a coconut for hydration and a stash of Cipro and bread, I walked the next day through the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, just outside of the large, busy city of Phnom Penh. This was one of at least 300 killing fields across the country, and is now an area of remembrance, education, and honoring.

The van ride there was stirring to me, realizing the close proximity of this field of death, barely outside a city that is once again sprawling. At that time, it was a ghost town, completely evacuated.


Photo by Megan Nemire

Though I am a person who feels very deeply all across the emotional spectrum, and ordinarily expresses herself with conviction and passion, this morning I found myself silent. I heard Arn’s words, you feel, you die. You cry only in your mind. This is how he survived.

So I walked the sites, which without marking might appear as any ordinary field, with clusters of trees, a small lake, and small mounds of dirt that stir the ground. I stood in silence at the mass graves. Bowed in reverence at the piles of bones and torn cloth. Listened to the audio player given from the staff that shares personal stories of struggle from survivors. All along I heard the words, and the feelings made themselves known, but they were trapped somewhere within myself.


Photo by Megan Nemire

At the end of walking my lap around the lake, I approached a tree covered in bracelets of all colors, hanging from the bark. The sign read both in Khmer and English, “Killing tree against which executioners beat children”. Deep sigh and my stomach drops yet again. This tree had been used as a death machine for women and children, its own sturdy nature twisted into a weapon cheaper than bullets. They were smashed into its trunk, head first.

I stood close to this tree, oscillating my attention between inward and outward focus. I was sensing what was there. There was my own profound sadness, still trapped behind a wall; there was my disbelief, fear, horror, relentless questioning, and futile need to make sense of this atrocity. However, I didn’t sense that trapped feeling outside of myself. It occurred to me that perhaps, in this place of reverence where bones and clothing are moved to a stupa, and honored in a Khmer death ritual, that the spirits of those who died here have left this land.

Standing close to the trunk of the tree, the bark that stayed firm against broken skulls, I looked up. There were leaves. This tree, sentenced as the tool for taking hundreds of innocent lives, was still growing itself.

I had a moment of outrage, on behalf of the tree, for being transformed into a killer. I quickly found my outrage to be misplaced. My outrage was for the people, for the thousands that died at Choeung Ek, the two or three million people killed in the Khmer Rouge genocide, for the young Khmer men and women used as disposable soldiers, made to execute their own people through brainwashing, lies, and threats of their own death.

The outrage led to sadness, the sadness to hopelessness. Hopelessness to a series of deep breaths. There is horror in the world, and I am still here, standing. There can be death and life within the same being. A tree can murder and grow. A country can destroy itself, and its people can still heal. A person like me can witness, fall apart, break down, and keep walking, keep writing, keep feeling, keep honoring.


Photo by Megan Nemire


One man I met here implored me, “Thank you for visiting my home. When you go back to yours, tell people about us. Tell people about Cambodia.” For today, I have told you about these deaths. And soon, I will tell you about the life.



Please note that while individual members have varying views on topics discussed in our blog, NCAS-I as a whole honors multiple perspectives, within respectful reason, and does not aim to censor material shared in our blog writings. So please keep this in mind while reading our blogs. And please feel free to add your perspective too.


Author/artist note: Please do not use the images without permission. Thank you.

*Stay tuned for a blog post from Krystel in a couple days, sharing more about Arn Chorn Pond’s life, and our experience meeting him.



McCormick, P. (2012). Never fall down. New York: Harper Collins.

Unknown author. (2004). The Killing Fields Museum – Learn from Cambodia. Retrieved from: http://www.killingfieldsmuseum.com/genocide1.html

Vaillant, George E. (1977). Adaptation to life. Boston: Little, Brown.




Reflection: Open Hearted Goodbye

By Aiya B. Staller

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”How do you fall in love with being alive? Be willing to glimpse the end of everything you hold dear.” ~Stephen Jenkins

Sitting in the far back of our travel van, held firmly in place by a large backpack against my body on one side and my bent knees curled towards my chest as to make room for the storage beneath my feet, I find a balance as my hips straddle the edges of two seats.  For this moment, it feels luxurious as I relax into the air-conditioned van ride and play a recording of singing humpback whales that I have on my ipod.   I have a little over five hours to process the experience at Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC).  I feel happy-sad as I let myself cry.  Endings are often emotional, sweet, and sad for me.  I saw this reflected in others’ tear-streaked faces during our final group.  I begin to dream as I think about the people I worked closely with at CWCC.

photo (1)

Last Friday was our closing group at CWCC.  Our work with the residents and staff focused on art therapy within Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics and Trauma (Perry, 2006).  This approach can help the nervous system calm down, especially after trauma, and can allow people to more fully open to their own creative process with its innate capacity to heal.  It also allowed me to drop into the creative process with the group.  We laughed, played, cried, heard stories of struggle, and learned about each other through creating art together.  The simplest connections were often the ones that stood out the most to me: passing scissors to help a girl cut her shadow puppet just right,  laughing in surprise as a woman teases me because she knew English all along, gently taping the art on the walls of the building as I think of the person who created it, and sitting with a traumatized woman as she watched the group in silence.  The small moments flash through my thoughts as I sit in our ritual circle to share our ”Shining moments” with the group.  The framework of our relationship was clearly structured, and this will likely be the last time that I see these women and children, even if I am able to return.  I’ve long since forgotten about the heat and discomfort, as all that matters to me right now are the people I’m sitting with.  The tears flow on many of our faces as I listen to the staff, residents, and children, “I will always remember you . . . I want to see you again . . . thank you for coming here . . . don’t forget us . . . please tell people about us. . . I love you . . . you are our friends . . . thank you for bringing all of this art.”


It is time to leave.

I wake up from my dream-remembering to the reality that l am in the back of a van heading to Phnom Penh.  The whales have stopped singing on my ipod.  A recording from Pema Chodron’s book, When Things Fall Apart, begins instead (1997).  She speaks about the practice of Tonglen and its relationship to Bodhicitta, or the “Awakened Heart.”  Tonglen is a practice of cultivating compassion through allowing space for feelings that arise in ourselves and others.  In simple terms, it involves breathing in the suffering of others, and breathing out relief, or good intentions, directed towards them.  It can also be used for ourselves to aid in staying close to our feelings and experiences, even if they are difficult.  It is a practice of not turning away and staying present with self, others, and reality.  This can allow us to sit with people in whatever emotional state they are in, as we recognize it as part of the whole experience of being alive.  It is also closely related to Bodhiccitta, and the “Awakened Heart” which is correlated with the experience of sweet sadness (Trungpa, 2007).

I cry as I recall the stories that I heard, remembering sitting with the women and children, and imagine what they are doing right now.  Even though our time was brief; it had depth.  I feel a tender ache in my chest when I think of them.  They have touched me and I will always remember this.

I wrote previously about the alchemical element of change that happens in therapeutic relationships.  Through creating art together and experiencing each other in a therapeutic context, which allowed safe connection, I was touched deeply.  As I saw their faces and heard their words, I could see that they were as well.

My heart hurts.

I wanted to leave with you a part of a translated poem from from ”Sokha”, which was a Cambodian performance art piece from a partner organization of CWCC’s called Phare Ponleu Selpak.  It speaks of grief and endings, reading as follows:

”Life is given to us, we earn it by giving it……do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness….beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. Keep peace in your soul. With all the shame, drudgery, and broken dreams, it [life] is still beautiful…” ~ Phare Ponleu Selpak, Social Justice Performing Arts Circus School & Theater


Chodron, P. (1997). When things fall apart: heart advice for difficult times. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Perry, B. (2006). Working with traumatized youth in child welfare. New York: The Guilford Press.

Trungpa, C. (2007). Shambhala: the sacred path of the warrior. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.


Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center: a mid-week reflection

We are now halfway through our trip, with five days of work at Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center behind us, and only two more to go. The work days have been physically and emotionally exhausting, and I admit I am challenged to synthesize my thoughts. Organizing a written reflection for public consumption is difficult when the experience is still so fresh, especially when my instinct is to focus on giving myself the care I need to replentish my energy for the coming day. But this is an important piece in the training, navigating the transitions between the several roles we play as professionals: being empathically attuned and available to clients, turning inward for self-care rituals at the end of the day, accessing the logical academic brain. So today after work I did my best to create a compressed version of the wind-down ritual. Pre-supervision chocolate soymilk, post-supervision shower to wash the humidity and sad stories down the drain, excellent barbeque chicken and peanut sauce from the stand across the street, a half hour of practicing ukulele on the balcony until the ants started biting, and now, sigh, the laptop.

Before I describe the past week, I would like to acknowledge our team’s debt to the two groups of NCAS-I students who came before us. It is because of their efforts that we are able to reap the benefits of this fruitful relationship with CWCC, and because of the strong bonds they formed last year, the staff and clients at CWCC anticipated our arrival and were prepared to engage with the materials and processes with open mind and heart.

CWCC’s mission is to provide  comprehensive one stop  service to victims of domestic violence, labor trafficking, and sex trafficking. The NGO provides a safe shelter for women and their children, legal services, counseling services, and occupational training. They also hold anger management trainings for perpetrators of domestic violence, citing that to help the women is not enough;  if the cycle of violence is to be disrupted, men must have access to services as well.  I found that to be quite culturally progressive, and applaud the scope of CWCC’s vision. Our work with the NGO is broken up into several parts. In the morning we work with the staff, doing trainings in Art therapy, Trauma-specific therapy, and Art based self care for mental health workers. In the afternoons, we work with clients in the relatively cool and breezy counseling room, which has been transformed into a vibrant, chaotic open studio. Each NCAS-I student has prepared an art intervention to present to the group, and several art making stations are set up at tables around the room. Because CWCC also provides services to so many young children, we students take turns running activities outside to keep the little guys entertained so that their mothers can focus on art making. Lastly, we are conducting individual art based assessments with clients in a separate counseling room. After being debriefed on a client’s history, we decide one of three assessments, and conduct a 50 minute individual session under the supportive gaze of a NCAS-I supervisor, a CWCC therapist, and our translator. This is not only an important learning tool for us students, but a source of unique insight for staff in terms of new possibilities for the direction of therapy.

Staff training is an integral aspect of our work here. We are only working with CWCC for ten days, our visit is a blip on the radar. We are not here long enough to establish the trust necessary for the work of trauma therapy. In fact, it would be unethical to attempt to go into such deep territory with a client under these time limitations. Our work here is to help staff access important tools that can empower them to be more fully present to their clients, to endure the weight of their work, and to not suffer overwhelm and burnout. I will share a story from Friday, when a few of our team members introduced a Yoga based activity. Our superstar translator, Panchena, explained the directive in Khmer,  “When we work with clients, we feel it in our bodies and we carry it with us. When we don’t work on that energy, it becomes trapped, and can hurt us.” Participants were lead in a twenty minute Yoga routine, and were asked to create two drawings; one to represent how they felt before yoga, and one to represent how they felt afterward. One staff member depicted a figure whose chest was full of blue dots. In the second drawing, the figure was surrounded by blue dots, with only a few remaining inside his silhuette. When asked to describe the difference between the two drawings, he responded, “Before, I was very anxious inside. Now, that worry is outside of me. There are some worries that I will always have with me, but those are just a part of me.”  This was a simple but profound example of how a combination of somatic experience and art making can be used to both inform and alleviate vicarious traumatization.


In Transpersonal Psychology, there is the idea that the client directs the content of the therapy, while the therapist holds the context. That is to say, the therapist provides a safe container of walls and a roof, and the client fills the house with life. For the past two years, we have been learning the foundations and practical applications of Art Therapy. We come with an understanding of which art materials bring about certain emotional and physiological responses. We understand how image can serve as a metaphor for things which cannot be spoken, and how as images change, the internal experience can be transformed. We consider developmental trauma and Post-traumatic stress disorder. We also consider how socioeconomic status, the intergenerational trauma which exists in this Cambodian culture, and gender inequality might effect the way a client relates to the therapist and art materials. We consider the mission of CWCC, and what circumstances may have brought clients there. All of these elements factor into the context that we hold as student therapists.

Milieu therapy is another important aspect of our work and learning here. This refers to the more informal interactions that take place with and amongst clients in public group space. Clients are often at their most relaxed and natural, and tremendous interpersonal and intrapersonal shifts can unfold here, particularly with the nonverbal medium of art at their disposal.  While it often the picture of meditative absorbsion, at times the studio is a flurry of glitter and tissue paper, brandished brushes and peals of laughter. This calls to question, where is the line between therapy and playing? When we are having fun and getting to know each other over a language divide and a table full of clay, it looks very different from a traditional clinical practicum. Is this valid clinical practicum work? To address this, we carefully consider the way we construct these interactions in the context of transpersonal psychology. We are playing with children, yes, but we are viewing these interactions through the lens of developmental psychology and attachment theory. I keep a sketchbook dictionary, adding pencil drawings and asking clients for the Khmer translation. I repeat incorrectly several times amidst hysterical laughter, my American tongue unable to maneuver the nasal subtleties  and near-silent consonants of the language. I piece together crude sentences such as,  “Red is nice, I like cat” with great pride, and hold up a snakeskin triumphantly and declare “Bwoh!” The clients double over in laughter, as I have mispronounced and said the word for “stomach”. In our first two days of work, CWCC’s clinical team was away on retreat, and our primary objective was to build rapport with the clients, set ground rules for the studio, and help clients become more comfortable using the materials. I have introduced this collaborative vocabulary sketchbook as a personal intervention for creating connection, which will facilitate a greater degree of trust and communication for the coming week. It began quite spontaneously, I was sitting on the floor with a group of children, and an 8 year old boy handed me a stack of the mandala pages he’d colored. After marveling over his attention to detail and color choices, I picked a blank page and drew a star. On his page, he drew a star. I drew a monkey, and with a furrowed brow he copied my lines. for a half hour, we say and drew dozens of animals, mirroring each other’s movements, until we ran out  of paper. Already knowing the word for “cat”, I pointed at my drawing and said, “Ch-mah”. “Chmah!” he nodded in approval. I pointed at the drawing of an elephant and asked, “A nee how ay? (How do you say?)”
Boy:   “Dom brey”
Me:   “Bom dry?”
Boy:   “Dom Brey!”
Me:   “Bom Prayb??”
Boy:   (sigh) “DOM….. BREY!!!”
Me:   “Dom brey???”
Boy:   “Bah”   ***

This interaction snowballed into a frenzied dance of pointing, drawing, gesturing, and repeating. We were joined by a few other children, but the boy was clearly the leader of this game. There was an urgency to the exchange, the sense that everything hung on our ability to meet somewhere in the middle of the verbal chasm. It was giddy, breathless, and fun. The creation of this book became an important therapeutic tool for me. It allows for a shift in the power dynamic, letting the client  be the teacher and I the student. I am modeling behavior by entering an uncomfortable process and recovering again and again from small failures. And with each drawing recognized and word correctly pronounced, we celebrate a small victory. It bonds us, we have struggled together over a small hurtle and succeeded. We are establishing an element of teamwork and interdependence. We are engaging the client’s sense of autonomy and agency, that their input and effort are essential and invaluable. Through this book, I am communicating a desire to enter the client’s world, to connect and understand. The boy later said to our translator, Panchena, “I feel happy. When I draw a dog, she says dog, and she understands.”


Does drawing pictures of objects and enlisting clients as translators count as Art Therapy? When viewed from a Relational or Feminist perspective, I believe it does. As therapists, one of the greatest gifts we can offer clients is our presence, our relationship. We communicate that they are seen, heard, recognized, and appreciated. Only in the context of trust, safety, and relationship can true healing begin.

*** It was later confirmed that the correct pronunciation is “Dom Rye” , and that when I was chasing children around the yard waving my arm like a trunk and making trumpeting noises, yelling “Jom riep sour, khnom chmouh Don Brey! ( Pleasure to make your aquaintence,I am elephant) ” it was very confusing for everyone.



Creating Connections

by Chelsey Langlinais

As we continue our journey in Cambodia we have now arrived in Sisophon, which is nothing like Siem Reap. There are dirt roads, lots of small stands, and locals that seem like they do not have foreigners visit very often. Most of the first day was spent hanging out at the hotel and getting used to the new environment. The next morning it was off to start our first day of work.

As we drove up to CWCC, I did not know what to expect. I knew there would be women and children, I knew we would have a space for making art, and I knew it would be hot. I could have never anticipated such a wonderful oasis like the one we were greeted with. The gated yard we pulled up to is clean, bright, and full of trees and flowers. This space felt safe from my first interaction in it. There are a few buildings on the grounds, some which are community areas, and some living quarters. There are 12 staff members normally there, except for the first two days of our visit there were only 4, because most of them are on a retreat and will return after the weekend. Which was a wonderful opportunity for us to get to know the participants more closely and to spend quality time together before the rest of the staff returns.

Each day, we will spend three hours in the morning working with staff, teaching them self care techniques, and also how they can incorporate art therapy into their client’s treatment plans in the future. Then, after lunch we spend three hours working with the clients in an open studio model with several different interventions planned for the day that the participants can move from one to the next however they choose. Each student in our group has planned an art therapy intervention to do with either the staff members or the participants. Each student will also complete an art based assessment with one client during our time as well.Image

On the first day we pulled up to hesitant faces, watching us as we piled out of the van, curious about us, but unfamiliar with our group. We would smile as we walked around for the tour and were given broad introductions of one another. But, what took place in the art room really changed the dynamic between us and allowed for a deeper connection despite the initial nervousness and language barrier, but I’ll get to that later. First let me introduce the wonderful organization we have the privilege of working with.

CWCC (Cambodia women’s crisis center) is an NGO (non-government organization) that provides everything from “social assistance to legal protection, economic empowerment through skills training and small business loans, community’s organizing for prevention of gender-based violence and advocacy work at national and international levels” according to their website. But from what I can see, their biggest goal is to empower these women and children and to protect them from further physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

On our first day at this organization, we spent the morning working with the few staff members that are still on the grounds. We played a name game, and asked lots of questions about how this week would look for us and for the clients. I think we had more questions for them, because this is the second year NCAS-I has worked here, they seemed fully ready and prepared for us, and for the creative processes in which we were bringing to share with them. As the morning of our first day came to an end we left to go back to the hotel for lunch and would return to start working with clients in the afternoon. For the afternoon we had three stations set up, tissue paper flowers, stained glass, using contact paper and tissue paper, and decorating mandalas. The goal for the first day was to introduce ourselves and to begin creating a safe and comfortable space for art making.

We introduced the concepts and invited the art making process to begin. I never could have imagined it would end up with everyone having tissue paper flowers in their hair, tissue paper jewelry, and some of the most beautiful handmade decorations strung around the room I’ve ever seen! Butterflies were hung in front of the windows, flowers on the back of every chair, and mandalas hung around the room filling the walls. By the end of the day, we were all decorated and the room was full of color and laughter. I left that day feeling thankful for the opportunity to do this work, anticipating how wonderful the rest of our time together would be.


On the second day we arrived, we were greeted with smiles and bows of appreciation. Some of the flowers were once again beautifully decorating the heads of participants. As we were setting up, the children gathered in excitement by the door, anxious to once again be invited into the art space, although they had to wait until the afternoon, they curiously watched as we set up and prepared. On that day in the morning, we offered a yoga intervention for the staff members as a self care technique, which we will continue in the morning with all of the staff members when they return.

The interventions for this day included water colors and outdoor games for the little bitty kiddos, (which allowed their mothers time to make art, as well as invited developmental exploration) decoupage tissue paper bowls, pinwheel making, and a free drawing table. Once again the pinwheels became decorations for hair, and as people would walk by a fan they would twirl on tops of heads. Children would stand in front of the fans and watch the pinwheels spin and giggle in amusement.

Along with creating art with the participants we are also creating a joint mural in the art room with them. I am on the committee for that project, and the second day at CWCC we began that process. We mapped out a mandala of Cambodian women holding hands around a lotus flower in the center. We invited a few people at a time to begin the background colors. They worked so carefully and precisely alongside us, directing color choices and placements of colors along the way. We smiled and thanked one another constantly for the beautiful job we were all doing. The picture below shows what we have completed so far. image

At the end of the second day I could tell that we are truly special to these people and that they are special to us as well. The amount of pictures they wanted us to pose for with them, and the amount of excitement and love that filled the air was truly breathtaking and I am so glad we still have a week left to experience more with this amazing group.

As I write this, I can’t help but to think about how different these interactions would have been without the art making process. The art has a way of allowing us to communicate even though we do not speak the same language. We are creating a bond with this group that is bound by paint and glue and needle and thread. Creating relationships through the creation of art, that is powerful, that is real connection.

Photo #1 taken by Michelle Bosco

The House of Offerings

We arrived at the gates of Anjali House to find a large, cream-colored, two story house, and a deserted yard and sports court. The children were all still in class, though the space outside the house buzzed with potential for play and exploration. In Sanskrit, the word ‘Anjali’ means offerings. We were introduced to Melanie, the Young Adult Program coordinator, who explained some of these offerings Anjali House provides to its students and their families. The children come to Anjali House for half days, during the time they aren’t attending public school. During this half day, they take classes, learn English, and are given numerous opportunities to exercise their creativity. Since the children have to forego a job in order to spend their non-school time at Anjali, their families are given weekly rice allowances to make up for the money the children would have made for their families by working.

Anjali’s dedication to the arts is what makes it a particularly good match for a partnership with NCAS-I. On the website, they describe the arts as “increasingly being recognized as a way to improve cognitive learning, increase right side brain development, and build self esteem among disenfranchised children.” They could have taken those words right off a Naropa art therapy syllabus! I was encouraged to see the power of art utilized in such an intentional way as one of their main modalities for growth and learning. In fact, the seed for Anjali House itself began as a week-long photography class for street children offered by the Ankgor Photo Association.


In previous years, our NCAS-I team has made a puppet theatre and a sand tray with the children at Anjali. This year our task was to design and paint a mural on the walls surrounding a small plot of land reserved for a future vegetable garden. This endeavor began as activities involving 20 young children often do: with some chaos and a leap of faith. This is not to mention the language barrier and a very loud buzz saw next door, drowning out any attempt at making introductions and setting ground rules. Sue forged through these distractions to rein in everyone’s attention and explain our design–each child was to paint a mandala flower of their own on the wall. Even as we seemed to dive in willy nilly, mixing blue paint and covering the dull concrete walls with sky, a natural creative rhythm emerged. These kiddos had obviously painted before, showing very little hesitancy in covering the wall–and some leaves and their shirts and each other’s hair…—with gusto and creative ambition.

As a team, we all intuitively moved into and out of the hubbub as needed, and I have to say I was impressed by our ability to take action with such flexibility and grace. The frenzied mix of children, paintbrushes, and volunteers was disorienting at first, and I found myself more comfortably settling into the periphery, mixing paint and containing the situation. I was nervous to interact with the kids, too. What would we talk about during the very short time we were to spend together? I felt like by the time I drew a breath to speak, we’d be bidding each other thank you and goodbye, or ‘ah-kun, lea hai’. I felt awkward using my limited Khmer, but I also noticed that some of the kids, especially the teenagers, were having a similar hesitance using what little English they knew. However, in all this we seemed to all share a common feeling of curiosity and excitement. In the midst of this experience, the smaller children fluttered about like little dragonflies with paintbrushes, and pretty soon we filled the four drab concrete walls with a blue sky that matched the one above us.


Emma demonstrated the first mandala flower, showing the kids how to build their mandala from the inside out. Perhaps a pink heart in the middle, with orange lines radiating, surrounded by green squiggly snakes, then purple triangles for petals. The kids caught on quickly, and round balls of color began appearing against the light blue backdrop. Some of our group members worked with specific children throughout the couple hours we painted. Michelle guided what we came to call the ‘girls’ wall.’ Four or so young women huddled in the corner, quietly giggling and and painting beautiful flowers with tiny hearts and stars, swirls and zigzags. Michelle made sure they had all the colors they needed while engaging them in conversation. I was struck by their attention to detail, and got the sense that these flowers actually were extensions of themselves, as the directive originally suggested.

Many of the boys showed up as rambunctious and bold, purposefully painting on each other and other non-wall surfaces. To the left of the girls’ wall was a gathering of teenage boys who painted their flowers accompanied by short graffiti messages written in English, cryptically speaking of missing someone and being in love. The other students laughed at these painted lines of prose, which seemed to hint at an inside joke among the group. They reminded me of a teenage boy band as they stood posturing with masculine gestures, while writing lyrics of love and heartache.

The morning drew to a close as suddenly as it had started, and the kids readied themselves for lunch as we began to clean up and say our goodbyes. Though we hadn’t expected to finish the mural in those three short hours, the wall had quickly been transformed by dozens of painted flowers, mirroring the garden it would soon protect. Our time spent at Anjali house did feel much like an offering, as the name suggests. We and these children came together briefly to bring beauty to their space, both visually and relationally, through the means of art. Though I would have loved to spend a month with them learning Khmer and building more lasting relationships, our offering was more like burning a stick of incense: short, sweet, and representative of a greater devotion.


Angkor Temples

10360561_714047481992393_1623925664002388595_n[2]by Kelsey Butler

We began our second full day in Cambodia bright and early at 5am, heading to the ancient temples of Angkor for a sunrise meditation and day of exploring. Although it was still dark when we awoke, the almost-full moon brightened up the streets of Siem Reap and we were about as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as we could be given the hour. We arrived at the first temple, Ankgor Wat, with some time to spare, snapped a few group pictures, and found a quiet secluded area to begin our day with a group sit.

A little history lesson for you… The region of Angkor is on the outskirts of Siem Reap. It is filled with ancestral temples spanning miles across the breathtaking landscape. The Angkor Era began in 802 AD and fell in 1431, leaving a timeless mark on history with the many temples left behind. The era began with Jayavarman II subjugating an area of land the size of Cambodia and crowning himself chakravartin - universal monarch. He became the founder of the Khmer empire and chose an area 8 miles outside of Siem Reap as the empire’s first capital. Under his rule, Preah Ko and Bakong were the first temples built in Angkor. In the decades following, the kings built many more temples to continue the tradition of their predecessors. These temples were originally for the Hindu religion, but after the empire fell they became inhabited by Buddhist monks and are now regarded as Buddhist temples. Ankgor Wat, the most famous temple, is arguably the largest religious monument in the world. (Ranges, 2009)

 photo 2  photo 1 1688248_752913848017_3057875128008876870_n[1]

(explore the temples interactively here)

As we began our time in Angkor Wat with a group meditation, my mindfulness was put to the test. Never before had I meditated in this kind of environment. Sure, I had done my share of sitting outdoors, but this was different. Cambodia is the epitome of humid and hot, especially during May (one of their hottest months of the year). It’s equivalent to a Bikram Yoga class – you sweat so continuously that eventually you forgo wiping the drips away because it’s just not worth it. Even before the sun was fully up, as we sat on the stones and focused on our breathing I couldn’t help but notice the slow drops making their way down my face, back, arms…you name it. The flies were drawn to our group as well, causing my mind dance between the ticklish fly landings and the steady drops of perspiration. My ability to let be and let go was definitely tested.

 Even so, there was an energy in the air that made everything not only bearable, but pleasant. That’s something I have learned in the past week of being in this beautiful country – even within the discomfort and suffering, there is so much beauty and joy. I find myself exhausted due to my disrupted jet-lagged sleep and constantly drenched from the heat, yet still I can’t help but smile. I’m so happy to be with this group of incredible women, working and growing together. As Jessica shared during our initiation ritual the first night, we each have our own intention and reason for being here but we can rely on each other’s support in order to fulfill our personal, and the group’s, intentions.

Back to Angkor Wat…our meditation was truly beautiful, even amdist all of the distractions. It set the tone for the day. As I continued exploring the ancient ruins, I felt as if I was on a walking meditation journey - present, reflective, and aware. We took group pictures and then split off, sometimes with a partner and other times off on our own.

One of my (many) favorite parts of the day happened early on. Throughout the temples were altars and shrines set up with incense, statues of gods and goddesses, and intricate decorations. At one of these temples, Sue encountered a monk and, having some experience at Angkor Wat, motioned toward a book that he was holding. He graciously began to offer blessings to nearby onlookers. One at a time, someone would sit down on the small carpet with the monk. As he tied a red braided bracelet onto their wrist, carefully knotting it five times, he offered Khmer blessings. After rubbing the bracelet back and forth on their wrist and tapping it a few times, he reached for his book. The guest held the book on top of their head, took a sort of nail-shaped-pen-pointer object, and poked it into one of the pages. The man would take the book off their head, open it to the page they had blindly indicated, and read their fortune. Chatti translated whenever one of the members of our NCAS-I group went so that we could understand what he said. As I watched, I thought “Oh this is pretty cool,” thinking it was like a fortune cookie or some random tidbit of knowledge that could potentially work for anyone. And then I decided to give it a go.


When I sat down, I immediately felt a change in my energy. I suddenly had the urge to cry and the air around me become more dense. It was as if this tiny carpet we sat on together created a sacred boundary between us and the rest of the world. The crowd of people melted into the background and I was focused on what was happening between the monk and me. It was truly a transpersonal experience. I can’t speak for everyone, but my fortune was unique to my situation and could not have fit more perfectly. It was what I needed to hear in that moment, and allowed me to relax once more into being. What a special reminder that these deep interconnected moments happen when we least expect them.

I separated from the group after this experience, feeling a desire to have some space and to trust where my feet took me. I headed to a new area that was more hidden, away from the ancient temples. Here, I found young orange-robed monks-in-training inhabiting temples and buildings. One structure resembled a school, with a chalkboard and children reciting after the teacher. Another was a beautiful temple painted with bright colors, large statues, and a very out-of-place Hello Kitty clock. I made my way to a rock under a tree with a nice view of a few different buildings and pulled out my watercolors and pencils. Sketching the lively scene and the characters that inhabited it, I felt happy and a deep sense of comfort even in this strange atmosphere.

A couple of young boys dressed in jeans and plaid shirts looked like they were doing chores for the monks. I watched them attempt to maneuver a gigantic wagon full of baskets, laughing and goofing off when (who I assume was) their supervisor turned his back. One of them noticed me and walked over, hesitant yet curious. I invited him to look as I added color to the sketches, and pointed out the wagon and his green shirt on my page. He smiled bashfully and sat by my side as I finished the painting, double-checking with each stroke that my color choices were accurate. When I finished, I looked at him, smiled, and a thought crossed my mind. I wonder if my new little buddy would like to keep this painting? This was the first painting I’d done in Cambodia, and I noticed a small pang of possession. Taking a deep breath, I tore the picture out gently and held it out to him. He accepted it, nodding approval. All of my hesitations melted away at this instant, and I was filled instead with a deep sense of connection and warmth. THIS is a big part of what art therapy is all about - communicating through images, being in contact, and taking risks at different behaviors. In a small way, I was able to let be and let go.


The rest of the day we explored the temples at Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, our experiences filled with other amazing stories along the way. A small group of us ended the day creating more watercolor images at Ta Prohm, once again sharing some beautiful moments of connection with passerbyers. Something I realized today is probably pretty obvious, but it blew my mind - people are interested in art! They find it fascinating and frightening at the same time. If given an opening, more times than not a stranger will approach and open up to you. Today I observed, once again, that the artistic language is an opening for connection and growth if allowed the space to just be. In the comfort of art’s familiar language, I can navigate this world of the unknown.


Ranges, T. (2009). Angkor. In National geographic traveler: Cambodia. Washington, D.C.:National Geographic Society.

Photographs by Chatti Phal Brown, a friendly Cambodian who went by “Starbucks” and myself :)

Arriving in Cambodia

Blog post by Michelle Bosco

What does it mean to arrive somewhere? There is so much to be said about this experience. Physically, you journey through countless hours of waiting, landing, and taxing. You endure the not so great airplane food, the crying baby, and the uncomfortable middle seat just so you can arrive and experience something new. Then there is the push and pull of mentally arriving. Sometimes jetlag can be a significant factor. But, at some point, you arrive and you ingest the sights, smells, and sounds of a new environment. I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia on May 15th, 2014, along with the other members of the NCAS-I team.

My first step off of the plane and onto Cambodian soil was filled with relief, excitement, and a lot of humidity. I felt even more at ease once we reached our hotel, Soria Moria. This quaint and hospitable hotel strives to positively impact the local community and help facilitate long-term economic development in areas of Siem Reap. Since NCAS-I strives to be a social justice organization, it seemed fitting that we decided to stay at an establishment that supports multiple causes for social justice.

One organization in partnership with Soria Moria is called Friends International. Friends-International is a social enterprise dedicated to protecting marginalized children and youth, their families, and their communities in South East Asia and across the world. The primary focus is to offer people an opportunity to build better futures. Friends-International sustains their vision by developing various partnerships and businesses, including managing restaurants and shops. These businesses offer job-training programs for marginalized young people to work behind the scenes and gain hands-on learning. They also provide income to further support the mission.

The NCAS-I team and I ate at Marum, a premier dining spot in Siem Reap, and also a non-government organization (NGO) within the Friends-International network. We were welcomed in a similar manner to how we were welcomed at the Soria Moria Hotel: with warmth and kindness. The staff members were committed to giving us the best possible experience and we gratefully accepted their kindheartedness. The Soria Moria is partnered with the Anjali House, which is also one of NCAS-I’s partner organizations. Anjali House is a non-profit organization that provides food, healthcare, and education to under-privileged kids and families in Siem Reap. The Soria Moria currently provides trainee placement for three young adults from the Anjali House. The hotel also sells products from the Anjali House and Friends-International. Here is a photo of all of the products that are sold!


Photo credit: Jessica Sabo

We will also be working with people at the Anjali House, collaborating and painting a joint mural with them! Please stay tuned to hear more about our time there. Although I mentioned these two incredible partners, there are several other organizations that Soria Moria is affiliated with. To learn more about the others, please see their website.

Earlier I spoke to the nature of physically and mentally arriving, but one piece I didn’t mention was about emotionally arriving. Just saying it feels heavier and more complex to me. It requires more, but also rewards more. For me, connecting to several Cambodian people wasn’t difficult, but beautiful. I’ve had small moments of connection with the staff members at our hotel and at restaurants I’ve visited, but the one memory that stands out to me is when I met a Cambodian family at the temples of Angkor Wat. I stood behind a woman and exchanged several glances and gestures with the baby on her shoulder. She turned around and we began talking, which was more like a dance between understanding words and using facial expressions and hand gestures to make up for any confusion. We were separated by the crowd, but somehow we found each other a bit later and reconnected. I was so glad to see her sweet family again and she was excited as well, as she asked to be my Facebook friend. She has already reached out to me and even invited me to her home in Phnom Penh.


Photo credit: Megan Nemire

The conversation and little glances we shared were enough to make a meaningful impact on my journey. I may still be adjusting to the physical discomfort of 100 degree heat and the mental disorientation of jetlag, but I feel comfort in the fact that I experienced true connection. Through this emotional experience, I feel like I have arrived.

Blind Spots, Fear, Anger, Connection, and Whole Human-ness

Image(Aiya Leah Staller, 2013)

By Aiya Leah Staller

As an individual with a history of working with various social justice organizations while committing to studying power dynamics, oppression, and how systems affect communities, I felt at a loss entering this Service-Learning Trip. The preparation has proved to be a shadow-illuminating process as I confront my own guilt and shame around owning the unearned privileges that I have. I’ve made this type of journey before, but this time I re-visited things that I thought I had “moved past” so-to-speak. I don’t know that I will ever truly move past them. Instead, I will live with them and do what I must to reconcile this within myself. Being stuck with guilt and shame will not serve me.  Instead, I seek a way to stay connected and continue to work towards what helps heal the inequalities in the world.


Part of the reason that human trafficking happens, is because of systems that benefit a few.  Systems, such as unlivable wages for garment workers, objectification of women, or the false orphanages that profit off of uninformed volunteers, anger me (Barry, 1994; Zakaria, 2014). This is just a piece of the multi-faceted issue of human/sex-trafficking’s relationship to poverty and systemic oppression. I didn’t want to accept my own privileges, as it feels uncomfortable to know that I simultaneously benefit and am hurt by the inequalities in the world. Also, knowing that people may see me as part of the problem, even as I strive to not be, is a difficult path to walk. A part of me wondered, “Maybe it is true, I am just part of the problem and it would be better if I just leave them alone.” I feared not being enough, or knowing enough, to be of service.


At the beginning of the year, a rising desire to drop out of the trip was related to fear of working with my own blind spots and anger, especially since I have held such passion for social justice work. I wanted to question other peoples’ role in contributing to systems of oppression, not my own relationship to it in the context of a service-learning trip. Acknowledging developing an international relationship as a dance of needed ambiguity and unknowns is uncomfortable. Even though I have some powerful teachers in the form of supervisors, NGO therapists, clients, a personal therapist, and peers, sitting with the truths of disconnection and violence is still difficult. I wanted to do things the comfortable known way, not the messy way, where my own relationship with these forces is brought to light. I’m realizing that working with things as they are is the best that I can do right now.

Image (Aiya Leah Staller, 2014) What do I do with what I see? 

In art therapy, we speak of the alchemical elements of the creative process (Kalmanowitz, Potash, & Chan, 2012, p. 318). Through becoming absorbed in a process, all elements are transformed. The preparation for this Service-Learning trip has been an alchemical process for me. It has challenged me to explore hard questions and look at my own cultural edges. By staying with this, I notice my excitement grow as I sit with my art materials while imagining meeting people and creating art together. This process is not complete. When I do meet the people of Cambodia, we will truly enter the container of cultural learning and transformation. This is the parallel experience of healing in a therapeutic relationship that transpersonal psychology speaks of (Cortright, 1997).


As part of the process of developing international community, I have been interested in how an individual shows up in the world. A quote by Parker Palmer comes to mind, “Community cannot take root in a divided life. Long before community assumes external shape and form, it must be present as a seed in the undivided self: only as we are in communion with ourselves can we find community with others.” (Hooks, 2000, p. 128). I am doing the work on this side of the world to prepare for meeting the women at the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC), where I will be presenting a self-care art process. Acknowledging, being gentle with, and accepting all that comes up in myself is part of the work that I need to do in order to be present there.


One day, during this learning process, I found myself crying, upset, and wanting to destroy something out of my frustration with feeling powerless in relationship to these systems. My sister, who has been an inspirational devotee to social and environmental justice for me, shared an article about the practice of service. In it, there was written, “Serving makes us aware of our wholeness and its power. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals: our service strengthens us as well as others. Fixing and helping are draining, and over time we may burn out, but service is renewing. When we serve, our work itself will renew us. In helping we may find a sense of satisfaction; in serving we find a sense of gratitude” (Remen, 1999). I’m so grateful for this trip preparation process. I’ve learned to stop more and connect to the beauty and resilience there is in this world as well. I don’t need to fix systems right now. I can strive to show up as my whole self with the people in front of me.   Maybe that is part of the secret to systemic healing all along; acknowledging our inter-connection and practicing not turning away. The learning will continue from here.


Many of the original critical questions I held have dropped away in the final 6 days before leaving for Cambodia. I’m beyond excited to serve and learn there, as we have been invited and welcomed. I find myself, instead of being filled with guilt, overwhelmed with gratitude for the privilege that I have to go on this trip, practice art therapy in Cambodia with the people there, and be given the opportunity to embrace and be confronted by my own human-ness.


Image (Aiya Leah Staller, 2013)



Barry, K. (1994). Female sexual slavery. New York University Press.

Cortright, B. (1997). Psychotherapy and spirit: theory and practice in transpersonal psychotherapy. New York: State University of New York Press.

Hooks, B. (2000). All about love: new visions. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Kalmanowitz, D., Potash, J., & Chan, S. M. (2012). Art therapy in Asia: to the bone or wrapped in silk. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Remen, N. (1999). Helping, fixing, or serving? Shambbhala sun.

Zakaria, R. (2014). Poverty is not a spectacle. The New York Times (May 1).