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.