We recently connected with Cara H. Cadwallader and have shared our conversation below.
Alright, Cara H. thanks for taking the time to share your stories and insights with us today. When did you first know you wanted to pursue a creative/artistic path professionally?
“And I, I will survive, hey hey!” boomed the Disco Queen, Gloria Gaynor’s, powerful voice from the loudspeakers in my parent’s, eastern Canada townhouse. Toddling on four-year old legs, and holding onto a sharp corner of a wooden, coffee table in the living room, these empowering lyrics grabbed hold of my brown haired, big eyed self. In a household devoid of emotional connection where an antagonism towards empathy and a fear of vulnerability were rife, and where a cycle of physical and emotional abuse played out, I intuitively knew that Gloria was right – I was going to survive. I also felt the resonant chords, of the ancient use of art, song and dance as a means to retain and amplify the great stirrings of our human spirit, ringing within me.
Flinging my body through time and space, gymnastics at Vista’s Brengle Terrace Gymnasium was my first love. Singing and dancing in my parent’s newest living room, after our family made the cross-country move to San Diego, California, was easily my second. All of my pent up emotions, all that I felt but didn’t have the ability to express through spoken words, were channeled into performances for imaginary audiences. Writing was an early outlet for my stifled heart, as well. Eventually, performing, either on the football field while sashaying beside the marching band in high school or while under the proscenium arch in college, was something I became really good at. While an undergraduate, dance student however, a peer introduced me to the idea of ’embodiment.’ “It’s not about performing,” Mika said. “It’s about expressing and releasing all that is present right in this moment, here and now.”
Back then, when one of my professors would inquire about where and how we saw ourselves in the future, I was unable to see a clear vision. “I want an adventurous life,” I would tell her. “But my brain feels incapable of imagining distinct realities for myself.” Meanwhile, a peer rehearsed her choreography for admission into NYC’s Tisch School of the Performing Arts.
After graduation, I spent a year traveling the globe, while also working as an outdoor educator. This work brought me back to the mountains of southern California, where I realized it was time to apply to graduate school. Returning to San Diego County living for what I initially thought would be a short stint, I was accepted into a low-residency model of graduate school that kept my feet firmly traversing the vibrant neighborhoods of downtown San Diego. It was there where I found what I had been looking for all along – a community of people committed to exploring their humanity as well as their relationships with one another on a dance floor. In the backyard of where I had grown up, my dance explorations came to be about being human and remembering how to commune with others. After all, I had spent too many years deeply fearful of intimacy and running from or avoiding closeness with others. In 2005, my desire for performance fell away and my study of embodiment truly began.
Cara H., before we move on to more of these sorts of questions, can you take some time to bring our readers up to speed on you and what you do?
For over a decade and a half, I danced across San Diego County. As a producer and long-standing member of free-form, authentic movement-based dance spaces, like DanceJam!, Dance Church & Ecstatic Dance San Diego, as well as a teacher of contact dance improvisation, I was primarily investigating if we could apply some of the physical principals of dance, such as giving and taking weight, falling, centering and responsiveness to our partners, to our lives outside of the studio. I was curious if – by understanding these principals, along with other physical laws of motion such as momentum, rest, speed, and force – we could foster greater ease and grace in all of our relationships in “real life.”
In the East Village, I ran a dance and community center, called the Prosperity Hive, where I combined my passions for art, song and dance with the sustainable food movement that I had already been investing my time and energy in (with local non-profits, such as Roots San Diego Sustainable Food System, La Milpa Organica Farm, The Cultivating Food Justice Conference and more.) The symbolism of the honeybee became a magical, rich well from which hundreds of San Diegans enjoyed feeding their parched spirits for authentic connection through our unique programming – from singing with the Kirtan Rabbi to acrylic painting masks on palm-husk, and from dancing to live bands like Todo Mundo to rallying for social justice. In the Hive, I continued developing my personal embodiment philosophy which, at the time, I called “the Metaphor of Movement.”
Back then, what had been driving my dance investigations was my own hunger for deeper intimacy and my desire to overcome my fears of vulnerability. When my now, late partner, Burt, joined our dance community, at the end of 2011, I was also working on my writing as a way to share my dance philosophy more widely. After developing emotional intimacy with Burt, as friends for a year and a half before we became lovers, I was soon pregnant. Finally, I was reveling in the ‘why’ I had spent so many hours and years in the dance studio – to have a healthy, functioning relationship with my life partner and to finally become the mother I had always dreamt of bee-ing.
With pregnancy at an older age, my educator’s lens shifted towards maternal health and well-being. I developed programs for educating women on how to set themselves up for success during their first, 40-days post-labor and delivery as well as for supporting them through miscarriage and other loss (after I had sustained my own.) As our infant grew into a toddler, I continued to create what our family needed to thrive. In order for us to have a ‘village,’ I created a backyard cooperative in our expansive, suburban home in Cardiff. For two and a half years, dozens of families regularly gathered to enjoy playdates as well as a preschool-like environment with repurposed materials and a garden, and other family-friendly events focused on a sense of belonging and shared values.
Unfortunately, a 4th stage cancer diagnosis came calling for my parter in mid-2018. After a valiant year’s fight with conventional treatment, our little family downsized our southern California life and headed south of the border to experience less cold and stress and more warmth and serenity. In Ecuador in January 2020, my partner’s cancer had returned to ultimately claim his life. Returning to San Diego County, we celebrated him with a full weekend of in-person events right before California mandated sheltering-in-place. In shock without even knowing it, all I could do was focus on the daily tasks that required tending.
While quarantining for two-and-a-half months at the University City home of dear friends, I took advantage of the opportunity to pivot my in-person dance and embodiment classes to online where I began gathering women for intimate movement circles. However, it soon became clear that the emotional bodies of my son and I were not going to remain intact if I chose the path of isolation. In prioritizing our mental health, I bought a renovated, Ford van and spent the next seven months road schooling my son – just as my partner and I had once fantasized about doing.
In late April 2020, a small group of local Mamas had come to a similar conclusion – it was time to ditch isolating in small spaces with young children. Clearly setting out on a maternal mental health journey, the “Mama Caravan” was born. On our first tour, up the west coast and into the Pacific Northwest, I made sure to tell my son when I needed time and space to grieve our loss. He became accustomed to hearing me say, “I need to cry,” as well as witnessing “My Dance of Grief” and “My Dance of Rage” in a friend’s garage in Vista, in a granny flat in Marin County, in a Redwood Forest found outside of Olympia, Washington and beside a running creek in Sedona, Arizona.
During the last few years of my partner’s life, what lit him up the most was talking about “emotional fitness” – or, rather, a person’s ability to identify what s/he is feeling in order to clearly communicate about it. As an embodiment artist, I was often reminding Burt to include movement exercises in his emotional fitness teachings. Burt never got the opportunity to empower more men with this life-affirming work, as he so wanted to do. And so, in honor of the 2nd anniversary of his Burt’s death this past January, I launched his and my final lovechild – emotionalfitnessdojo.com.
Our “workout” in our online dojo is to give our feelings and emotions a voice and expression so that they can be heard, seen and, ultimately, released. Through Emotional Fitness Dojo, we practice authentically feeling and vulnerably communicating about what we are experiencing in real time. Our goal is to be as equally fit in our emotional bodies as we aim to be with our physical bodies. We do this by also practicing not taking things personally, or internalizing the behavior of others; letting go of responding defensively to life, or other people; owning our experiences by not blaming others, circumstances, etc; distinguishing thoughts from feelings; and more. We do all of this so as to have more deeply loving and connected relationships – with others, and ourselves!
As a mother, my main commitment remains helping my son through his grief, which these days rears its head as rage or extreme disappointment. Meanwhile, my artist’s heart steals time, whenever she can, towards completing her book, The Mama Caravan: A Cross Country Adventure of Life After Loss. As a a dancer, I am dropping back into my body in a private cabin on the side of a mountain in southern Mexico, after having driven three, Mama Caravan tours over nearly 12,000 miles of contiguous USA, during the past two years. As an educator, I teach online writing and the language arts and I am an Emotional Fitness Dojo coach and guide. I also do consulting on the side – from birth to business to being with death and grief. I am not super woman, however. Rather, I am just a multi-faceted human with heaps of life experience who enjoys sharing with others through the power of transformational teaching and leadership.
Can you share a story from your journey that illustrates your resilience?
My life story is a tale of resilience, as well as an example of how I deeply trust my intuition to guide me on my path. From following my heart by continually choosing dance as my center point, even though art is not an easy road to money making, to listening to my dreams and the signs I interpret through my interactions with the world around me, I trust my life process even when I can’t see where it is taking me.
When Burt’s cancer returned, I bought myself a bicycle so that our son and I could escape the healing crisis our home was once more embroiled within in order to focus on just being present as we pedaled our bicycles through the pristine nature found in southern Ecuador. This is how and when bike riding became a great outlet for the two of us, and something we kept up with throughout Covid and while on our three, Mama Caravan tours. This past summer, my seven-year old son and I rode a 14-mile, flat stretch of bike path found along the marshy, green river in Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
After Burt died, I was in shock and didn’t even know it. All I could do was focus on what needed to be done – like getting my son to and from school, and working virtually with a team of friends in San Diego in the production of Burt’s memorial weekend. Then, our whole world got flipped, turned upside down and I was all alone, a single mother to a young child without a home or a car in the midst of a global pandemic, back in San Diego County.
Burt’s initial cancer journey had already created a pathway within me in which asking for and receiving help had become a well-used muscle. While quarantining at the home of dear friends however, I noticed that I was becoming increasingly frustrated and overly physically aggressive with my child at bedtime – when he would want to wrestle, as he once did with his Dad, and I would just want to roll over and go to sleep. I knew that the only way he and I were going to survive isolation was by spending ample time in nature, camping, bike riding and by my soothing my nervous system, and daily anxiety, with frequent dips in the cold waterways found in northern California, through Oregon and into Washington.
Completing our first Mama Caravan tour, up the west coast and into the Pacific Northwest, was comforting because I was doing something that Burt and I had talked about doing together. I viscerally felt Burt with us on this journey, and it felt good to be keeping him close in this way. After buying our converted van and hitting the road, I also began practicing putting my emotions into embodied expression whenever I noticed that I needed to cry and have some type of big, emotional release. I have to do this so that I can be more present and emotionally available to my child – especially since I no longer have a partner that I can lean into.
My Dances of Rage, Grief and Fear saw me taking baseball bats to mattresses, as I beat out all of my anger over the injustices of life; falling to my knees, sobbing fat tears and pawing at the moist soil found in Redwood forests; and shaking out all of my worries about Covid and death along the way. Emotional Fitness was what brought me back to myself, over and over again.
Learning and unlearning are both critical parts of growth – can you share a story of a time when you had to unlearn a lesson?
My greatest unlearning, especially as a woman, artist and mother, has been to release the lifetimes of shame and unworthiness that I was conditioned to take on. A deep fear of never being enough (or, of ‘imposter syndrome’) has long plagued my inner operating system. For most of my life, I have always felt that I needed to ‘prove myself’ – prove that I am a “good person;” that I am “successful;” and that I am worthy of love and attention. Burt was often pointing this out to me. “No matter what he does, you will always see our son as worthy – won’t you?” he would ask me. “Of course” I would respond. “You have to learn how to hold and see yourself in the same way,” he would cajole.
Burt didn’t have any shame. He always knew that he was worthy – no matter how anyone else behaved; no matter how much money he did, or didn’t have; no matter what. His decade and a half actively spent on his spiritual recovery work had made him the perfect master teacher for me. However, it was his death that forced me to confront and be with all of my inner emotions and feelings, especially the uncomfortable ones – like grief, rage, fear, guilt and shame. My grief long was an iceberg; Burt’s death was just the tip of it. Early childhood trauma takes its toll. So does being raised in a global world culture that reveres man, our minds and power-over and makes anything “feminine” – such as empathy and our Earth, natural processes like aging and dying, messiness and our emotions – “bad.”
Surviving these last two years, of 24/7 lone wolf parenting a young child during a global pandemic and other worldwide chaos and confusion, has me seeing myself more clearly than I ever have before. My feminine values – for connection and community, for what is natural and organic, for purity and innocence – have long been my inner compass. I make wise choices that consistently steer my young son and myself back to safe shores. I am enough just as I am and there is nothing I have to prove – to anyone. I just need to keep coming back to my soft heart, specifically where my child is concerned by, above all else, continually prioritizing our emotional connection. Nothing else matters.
- Website: carahcadwallader.com
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/youaremagicmama/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/emotionalfitnesswithmamacara
- Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/cara-cadwallader-queen-bee
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/BEELOVENOW/videos
Luis Enrique Aguilar Kevin McIlwaine