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I didn’t expect Nelson Mandela’s death to be so emotional for me. We never met face to face. He was sentenced to life in prison when I was two. This means that for my entire childhood, he was in jail.
My entire childhood.
While I was roaming through wheat fields, arguing with my sister, catching frogs, going to school, and learning about life and love, he was breaking rocks, eating small rations of bad food, and bribing guards to get newspapers so he could know what was happening in the movement.
I recently heard a definition of a leader which is: A leader is someone you choose to follow to a place you would never go on your own. Mandela certainly embodied that kind of leadership. He was clear that anything less than an end to apartheid would not be enough. He had the vision, knew his influence, the power of words and presence and carried his people’s suffering like a torch through 27 years in prison. People followed him partly because he opened up the possibility of freedom for them – and they trusted him to lead them through that long walk home.
Mandela’s friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that Mandela needed those years in prison to “mellow out”. Mandela was no angel. His people were trapped in systemic oppression, chronically demeaned and disempowered. He was a rightfully, righteously angry person. His movement discussed various forms of violence to break apartheid and was prepared to follow the necessary steps to force change violently. All options were on the table. Mandela was willing to go down in history as a terrorist if that would free his people.
But then he was arrested. Silenced. Exiled.
I can’t help but think that it was there, in the desert of prison, that Mandela was forced to face the parched and godforsaken places in his own soul. Twenty-seven years is a long time with the voices of his people moaning in the wind, the freezing winds and burning sun of his own rage and resentment, and the deafening silence of living without his family.
Transformation takes a long time. We don’t know what would have happened to Mandela if he had not been put in jail at the time he was. And for the length he was incarcerated. But when he emerged, he was ready to be the change both he and South Africa needed.
We have so many choices every day. For most it is less about what we do as it is how we do what we are given.
Mandela was a Freedom Fighter. A poet. A prophet. A man. A friend. A lover. A revolutionary. A true leader. May we hold his light high and be as fully human as he.
Touch me with kindness and laughter with wondering, and sweet words Touch me with your living, your feeding the world - and yes me - in all of this touch me this grace I receive with awe having sat in damp canyons for long stretches You know who you are You know why the sun rises each dawn You know how to release an animal into the wild You have learned how to say “thank you” this is all there is really… living on the earth, offering your broken heart in your hand to another bread and wine… and threading love through your days this is indeed the touching that makes me sing and sigh and walk into the clearing like a dancer
Tearlight dripping down the face of the earth and me I am not left forsaken This dancing moon parts the branches and shines on my wet face as if she would scoop me up in her arms and kiss me
snapping green beans into a tin colander heaping slender mountains of pinging stalks it is August the cotton curtains cannot keep the heat from burning up the kitchen slow motion flies swished off toward the window where the buzzle and shnuzzle and bouncing on windows keeps me perched the swamp coolers’ incessant trickling racket attempts to saturate a few inches with mold & wet mist I sit as close to it as I am able smoke ghosts… dishes in the sink the scrap pile you at the island with overflowing ash trays I remember you swinging your legs when you were happy calling Ione to bemoan your shared lot as farmer’s wives that’s all mom wife friend “Don’t quit school!” you said, you’ll never go back!! but I did quit and went back and followed a path mostly mine I am not you I can’t settle very well no white zinfandel with an ice cube no cigarette butts no long muffled winters or whistling through my rolled tongue that was you living by the syncopation of life encouraging everyone else to change the world while you were dying Sweet Jesus! how I loved and worried over you as if I were the mama and you the child but not any more now I care for my own and follow my soul’s incantations and snap green beans into a bowl
I walk into you time and again the hall your smile the blue stained carpet I know there are a million angels tugging on your shirt and so many other things to do So you don’t need to stop and offer some penance “we really should get together I’d like that” I’d rather you were a ghost looking down at the floor floating past me unnoticed than to undress myself before you each time while you throw on your hat and your scarf
It’s autumn and the kaleidoscope blurrs and shifts in gold, orange, crimson falling leaves in brazen death looking like joy shivering toward the forest floor it was the cold snap that cut their last breaths revealing such naked beauty Now it is us laying here in the dark watching her bare body against the cold expanse, a fingernail of moon an occasional bat she is so sturdy and seasoned like us dancing her hallelujahs against the wind as the leaves fall like fears cut one-by-precious-one resisting til the bitter end If we’d only known it would be so stunning perhaps we would have let go a lifetime ago