“Do not follow the ideas of others, but learn to listen to the voice within yourself. Your body and mind will become clear and you will realize the unity of all things.” ~ Dogen.
My father-in-law was a simple man who lived his life by strong principles. A farmer, he rose before the sun and labored beneath it all day, tending to his fields, his animals, and his kids, before falling into bed and in the morning starting all over again. His wife died young, in childbirth, and he never remarried, declaring he didn’t want anyone to move in and abuse his children. Towards the end of his life he declared he wanted his family to organize a ‘get-together’ (pronounced get-to-gyada in his uneducated patois). And the only family he wanted to attend were those who wanted to be there. He wanted no long faces, no people pulled by duty to be there, just those who genuinely loved him.
It is not easy to be raised by a man who neither takes nor makes excuses. When their mother died, the children ranged in age from fifteen to three. My husband, the only surviving son, would console himself in later years that if one parent had to die, perhaps it was better that it was his mother, since a woman on her own would have had a hard time to sustain the family. And surely she would have had to remarry, with who knows what effect on the kids. It was much later that I shared that thought with one of his sisters who had in fact wished it was the other way around, for how hard is it for a girl to be raised without her mother’s love, support, and wisdom?
I have been thinking about women all week. Last weekend I attended a beautiful celebration of the life of a woman who died thirty years ago. She also was a mother of young children (and older children also, her kids’ ages had more than a twenty-year span). Family and friends wore yellow in her memory. It was fitting, for the tabebuia (trumpet) trees were blooming in a riot of yellow flowers when she died. Behind the pavilion where the event was celebrated, an African Tulip tree was in full bloom, also known as Flame of the Forest for its flamboyant flowers. She herself was a bright, generous, happy woman, one who lived life without apology. I was surprised by how emotional the event was for everyone, given the passage of three decades. And yet the memories were still fresh, and took us all back to a place of youth, and vulnerability.
This coming together is such a powerful tool of unity, when we look to celebrate and share those things we have in common. In this week in which International Women’s Day was commemorated, we are drawn to images of strong, famous women, women who accomplished much. And yet how much more impactful are the women whose names we don’t know, who work quietly behind the scenes to ensure their family’s safety and wellbeing. There are so many women whose stories are lost to history, yet without their survival skills we would not be here.
In a patriarchal world, women who stand out are seen as exceptional. Which in a way is insulting, as if it is strange that a woman can accomplish so much. But we have to be proud of our ‘firsts’ since those trailblazers clear the way for others to follow. And the only way to inspire others, to hold the door open, is for their stories to be shared.
I recently read a novel by the great author Barbara Kingsolver, depicting the life of a young Kentucky boy who loses his mother to substance abuse and eventually falls victim to the same disease. In the book (told through his eyes), the author makes clear the callous way that corporations (first the mining industry, then big Pharma) played their role in destroying the communities’ lifestyles and opportunities. But since the story is told by this young man, it is illustrated with real life experiences, rather than cold data and statistics. Without these storytellers, these truths could remain unexposed. And yet we are living in a time when even novels are subject to being banned. Great works of literature that allow us to see life through the eyes of someone who looks, talks and feels a whole lot different than the reader are to be hidden away.
How can we come together if we can’t imagine the life of the ‘other’? I am thankful to be able to read and empathize with people far and wide, to recognize that we all have far more in common than we think. The only thing that will move us forward as human beings is a movement towards unity of intent, even as we allow for the differences and variations in our experiences, our appearances, our rites and rituals.
Bob Marley sang: ‘They don’t want to see us live together, all they want us to do is keep on killing one another’ and in an era where the politics of division and grievance has been effective in driving a wedge between us we have to strive to come together, to not be manipulated.
This Friday morning I am looking to the trees for inspiration. They withstand all manner of weather events, they continue to provide us with shade and oxygen even when we mistreat them and take them for granted. They remind us that the seasons change but come around again, that life goes on with or without us. They show us beauty and function, provide sustenance and furniture, they provide shelter to birds and squirrels (and oh those iguanas). You can learn a lot from a tree!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family. And let us strive to overcome petty differences and see the beauty in each other.