Culture

January 07 2014
18

Mandela

How appropriate that my South African sister broke the news to me – Mandela died.

I picked my daughter up from school and before we were out of the carpool lane I cried again, telling her Madiba died. “The South African president?” she asked. We read his story many times last year over dinner, so she knew it well enough to share my tears.

We drove to the store and picked out bunches of white lilies, a pillar candle and some ice cream. “Why do we need ice cream to remember Mandela?” I told her comfort food would be part of our mourning, so we picked up a carton of chocolate chip. Once home we arranged the flowers, lit the candle and my daughter brought her book out, the one with his likeness on the front cover, and propped it up as part of our makeshift vigil on the kitchen counter.

It surprised me that the checkout clerk didn’t know his name, “Is he a soccer player from Africa?” Even friends of mine confessed that beyond his name, they knew nothing of the man or his story.

I was aghast. How could people not know about Mandela, a modern luminary and practitioner of liberation?

I encouraged my daughter to take her book to school the next day. I crossed my fingers, hoping her teacher would read the book to his class. He did. And I felt like I did some small thing to ensure one class of forth graders would know who Nelson Mandela was and why his life mattered.

I added my own book, his Long Walk to Freedom, to our vigil. “Mama, when I get old enough can I read this Mandela book?” she asked, running her long fingers across the 800+ pages. I swelled with pride, “Yes, someday you can read his words for yourself and know why he means so much to us.”

Days later I would stay up to watch Mandela’s body lowered into the sun-soaked slopes of Qunu. I blew out the candle. Tossed the wilted lilies into the garbage. Put the books away. Losing Mandela marked me somehow.

As I placed the candle on the shelf of my iconostasis, still warm from days of burning, I knew it was time to move from mourning to living, embodying his legacy. For a moment I thought of those who couldn’t mourn with me, because they couldn’t mourn a man they never knew. It was a dull ache I took to bed with me.

***

But I now offer a confession of my own. There are names, voices and stories I know nothing of. Other luminaries fighting for freedom and people living on the wrong side of justice remain invisible to me. While I cannot know each story, I can be attentive to more. I must cast my net wider; I must lean in and listen better to those who could teach me a more excellent way.

So I’ve determined this year I will do better. One practical strategy involves my 2014 reading list. I will read more memoirs; I will listen to the voices on the margins. I’ve already collected books by wise Aboriginal mothers, a Gambian man who grew into a scholar, a Lebanese journalist speaking of rebuilding his homeland, a Latina lawyer (and Supreme Court Justice) from the Bronx, a Romanian Jew who survived multiple concentration camps, an American Muslim woman from my hometown and an Iranian woman who lived through the Islamic Revolution. I hope to hear their stories with an open heart and allow their experiences to educate, challenge and stretch me.

I plan to widen my circle on-line, who I follow and what articles I read. I want to be aware of those in my own neighborhood that can become teachers or point the way to new sources to expand my imagination. I don’t want these people to leave without having taught me their lessons, without imparting a blessing.

Maybe in losing Mandela, I will gain many other luminaries to light my way as I continue the long walk to freedom.

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18 comments

  1. Ccmitch

    I was shocked as well that some of my teacher friends hadn’t heard of Mandela. I’m determined to do better in 2014 as well…to “cast my net wider”. Could you share some of the book titles that you’ve collected?

    Reply
    • Here are a few titles: Night by Elie Wiesel, Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African by Lamin Sanneh, The Muslim Next Door by Sumbul Ali-Karamali (recommended by Reza Aslan). And if you haven’t already, Long Walk to Freedom by Mandela.

      Reply
  2. I love this…it was just the reminder I needed, so thank you. And I’d love to hear some of the books in your queue, sounds like an incredible storied lineup–there’s probably more than a few I should add to my own reading list!

    Reply
  3. I love how you brought this around to introspection for all of us. We can always cast our nets wider and you’ve inspired me to do the same.

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  4. Jemelene

    I needed your words this morning. I needed to know more than a cursory glance at a far away historical figure. We need to hear stories beyond our own reach. I live in a country where pop culture leads the “news” We know far too much about entertainers and far too little of those who are saving humanity.
    Thank you for bringing this to light for me. I too want better stories.

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  5. I love where you took this … From losing Tata Madiba to opening up your ears and eyes and heart to other voices.

    I am grateful for how your deliberate process of mourning helped me too. I am learning through you that it is comforting to have practices for times like mourning. It helped me do some practical things, in marking the time. Thank you for teaching me, by your example.

    PS: You were the first person I called.

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  6. Kelley,

    So beautiful. So many thoughts stirred up but mostly an intense desire to cast a wider net, both for myself and for my girls.

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  7. Oh Kelley,
    What a wonderful tribute, and such an important way to respond. I will be following your journey as well, friend. This is one that I am just beginning, as well.

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  8. “But I now offer a confession of my own. There are names, voices and stories I know nothing of. Other luminaries fighting for freedom and people living on the wrong side of justice remain invisible to me. While I cannot know each story, I can be attentive to more. I must cast my net wider; I must lean in and listen better to those who could teach me a more excellent way.”

    Really challenged by this thought, Kels. I must cast my net wider.

    xoxo

    Reply
  9. Kelley, this is wonderful. Would you mind sharing the titles of the books you mentioned? It would be very much appreciated. many thanks for this

    Reply
    • Erika, I mentioned a few in a comment above. Here are a few more: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, Wise Women of Dreamtime by K.Langloh Parker, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir by Stanley Hauerwas (not marginal, but someone I want to learn from still) and Unbowed by Wangari Maathai (Kenyan activist, Nobel Prize winner, powerhouse of a woman).

      Reply
  10. neesie

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute to a man who meant so much to us in South Africa. I lived through the ‘dark old days’ and am so grateful for this man. His legacy of forgiveness has changed me. I am so thankful for Tata Madiba, and proud to be South African.It is so wonderful to hear how he left a mark across the world.

    Reply
  11. What a great tribute – in words and action, Kelley. And I’m joining with the others to ask for a list of titles. My husband and I both appreciate a good memoir or bio.

    Reply
    • Diana… I’ve listed some in the comments above. if you haven’t already, read Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. Any good biographies you’ve read and recommend – especially by luminaries or from the margins? I still can take on a few more to my list…

      Reply
  12. I love this, your discovery that people were unaware and where it led you, to a new personal commitment. I’m trying to put my finger on why I smiled as I read. I think it’s because this isn’t a rant about what’s wrong with the world or with others. You took your observation and listened to what it was saying to you personally.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Marilyn. Glad you smiled as you read, because I think there is a delight in learning together instead of rushing to anger, harsh words and judgement. So much I want to learn from others this year, hope I have ears to hear.

      Reply
  13. I read “A Long Walk to Freedom” for a world history class in 10th grade and was absolutely enthralled by it. Mandela’s story really struck me at a time when I was figuring out what the world was all about. It’s a long read but wonderfully written and incredibly poignant and important.

    Reply

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