Sunday, May 22, 2011

The ways in which you alter

I'm reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom. Sometimes I think I read books like this because I want to become smarter. Sometimes because I want to look smarter. But this time, I was just really interested. I listened to a book on tape the last time I drove from NC to Texas called Forgive Me. I'd chosen the book because the author is an Austinite. But I ended up getting sucked into the story which was about the volatile and controversial days leading up to the end of apartheid in South Africa. Though Nelson Mandela wasn't a main character in the story, I couldn't help but go digging further into history for more facts and details. I do this sometimes- for the reasons I mentioned above- I go digging through history to figure out how I feel about events from the past. It's like I need to emotionally connect to it all or something. I don't really know why. But I've done this sort of excavation with the Holocaust, the Soviet invasion and subsequent wars in Afghanistan, the Civil Rights Movement (though that dig is ongoing) and now, apartheid. Though it doesn't just jump out at me until I put it into words like this, I guess you could say that I'm a little obsessed with injustice and oppression, but I feel like I'm always arriving to the fight a little too late. Like, I'd give my right arm to have ridden with the freedom riders, but the bus left the station a long, long time ago. So I read books and try to get as connected as possible with people who have overcome oppression and lived to tell about it.

What's interesting about that process is that I often find myself connecting on many different levels with the characters whose lives inspire me. Even though my life is incredibly boring by comparison, I had such a moment with Nelson Mandela this past week. His autobiography is amazing, by the way, full of unexpected details that whittle away at the Mandela mystique just slightly. My dad says that his friend Rex Harris has a picture of himself sitting with Nelson Mandela on his sofa. So I could argue that there are three degrees of separation between me and the real Nelson Mandela, but if I happened to be in the room when that photograph was taken I'd be mute as a mouse, because I think it's the voice in this book that I feel connected to. The real guy is still elusive and intimidating, in a good way. What would I say to someone who was imprisoned on behalf of the cause he believed in? When I believe in something, the boldest thing I do is write on my blog about it- and when that gets me into trouble, I cry and wish that people would be nicer to me. The real Nelson Mandela is too much stronger than me to sit on my sofa. But the voice, I like. The voice, I feel like I know.

And here's what the voice said that I connected to this week. When writing about a trip back to the place where he spent his youth, Mandela writes, "There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered." I like this thought much more than Thomas Wolfe's "You can't go home again" mentality. You can go home. But when you get there, you'll realize that you've turned into someone else during your absence.

I like home. I like smelling the sweet aroma of saturated Earth and detritus that wafts up from the swampy creek running through Water Oak Farms. I like the way the sun illuminates the leaves on the tall trees around my Aunt Judith's house, turning them into miniature green lamp shades on its evening journey westward. I like to hear the sound of my dad on the lawnmower on Saturday afternoon, and I like how the smell of the cigar he smokes to keep away the mosquitoes lingers in the carport and garage after he's finished putting away his yard tools. I like getting texts from friends with invitations to meet up somewhere, and being able to respond, "see you in a few minutes!" I like all of this very much.

But Nelson Mandela is right. Every time I come back here, whether things have changed here or not, I can't help but recognize that I'm not the same person I was the last time I left. Sometimes, there's nothing but pure gratitude that comes from that thought because I know I've come back stronger or happier or healthier in some way. But sometimes there's a tinge of bittersweetness or even frustration. I've been thinking about that this afternoon, about the things I'm thankful I am or am not on this particular trip home, and also the things that I'm frustrated about that have come along with that process. I haven't "figured it out" yet, and I don't think that I will. I'm not really writing about an answer. I decided to write, actually, because part of what I realized had altered was my willingness to be honest about not having an answer. That comes from an intensified desire for honesty and authenticity in general. That is surely one of the things in me which has altered. I've seen the devastation of platitudes, untruth, two-faced double-dealings since I left home. And it broke me. I want no part of it. I realized today, while riding my bike in the green-tinted light from my aunt's trees, that I've got to stop writing like I've got an answer when really all I have is an experience. I did that a lot in Snapshots, and it's going to have to change. I don't have the answers. I just know how I feel and what I believe.

The other way in which I've altered isn't so different from who I used to be. But I guess that I've just gotten a little stronger in my convictions about this particular thing, and maybe that strength will get put into further action. This change stems from the passion I already shared about- to research and connect with those who have suffered injustice/oppression. I got obsessed with the Holocaust when I was 13, so caring deeply and searching for meaning in such things isn't new, but I think the way in which I've altered is that I'm starting to get really tired of being too late to ride the bus. There are a couple of things that I think God is planting in my heart- and maybe there's a ticket for my bus ride in there somewhere. That's coming through what I've been through. Though my experience is lame by comparison, I've learned first-hand what it feels like to be in a position where you feel oppressed, like there's no escape, no hope for justice. That experience has caused me to know for myself the deep need to KNOW that God Almighty is against that oppression. People need to know that God is against all oppression- because oppression comes from sin, not from God. And I feel stronger about that than ever before. Not so scared anymore- even though people might read this blog and in their minds and hearts, hate me even more for it. I'm beginning to just not care about that sort of thing. Because the glory of God is at stake. You can't save the oppressed and fear the oppressor- it doesn't work out that way. If you want to become a player in overthrowing oppression, if you want to take part in God's incredible story of redemption, then you have to stop being so daggone scared of the people who will resist your stand. And I guess that as my heart heals, and I trust God's character more, I am not so afraid anymore.

I'll be here a few more weeks still. There will be more precious time to meet with friends and talk with family and smell the sweet, smoky smells of home. And with all that, maybe there will be more revelations about how I've altered.

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