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Archive for January, 2011

Created Noble

O Son of Spirit! Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself.
Rise then unto that for which thou wast created.

Bahá’u’lláh

When a person has fallen into the depths of misery or sin we must be kind to him, take him by the hand, help him to regain his footing, his strength; we must guide him with love and tenderness, treat him as a friend and not as an enemy.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá

In this posting (which I actually began writing over a month ago), I would like to share with you the stories of three men in the Carib Territory, whose names I’ve changed to respect their privacy. They are three stories, but really just one story. It is a story about the nobility of the human spirit, and the struggle to rise up after we fall; a story about my own prejudices, judgements, and fears; and a story about the ever-present hope of transformation.

The three gentlemen I speak of are “Jaron,” “Ray,” and “Thomas.”

Jaron is the father of two young children whose mother is one of my dearest friends here. When I first met her, she’d recently severed ties with him, as he’d begun selling all of the family’s possessions (including the cooking stove, and the children’s shoes) to buy drugs and rum. She reconciled with Jaron a few months later, as he’d sobered up and promised to try to change…but he soon relapsed, and this time—in an intoxicated rage—he went after her with a cutlass. The police took him away that night, and we were told he’d serve at minimum sentence of two years in the national prison.

Ray is, I believe, the only man to have ever elicited physical violence from me. When—during our first week in Dominica—he groped Roushy as we walked past him on the road, I spun around and punched the offending hand as hard as I could (a knee-jerk reaction, and not one I’m proud of). Since then, I’d basically just given him a wide berth, making no attempts to be subtle in moving to the other side of the road when I saw him approaching.

I considered Thomas to be just another one of the drunks. He never said or did anything disrespectful to me as many of the others did, but—deeming him guilty by association—I steered clear of him and his drinking buddies. I’d hear them singing in the rum shops, see them stumbling—barefooted—down the road, reeking of sweat and liquor, covered in filth and sometimes in blood…and, witnessing their degredation from a safe distance, a feeling of deep repugnance began to develop in my heart.

In the presence of these men—and the countless other Jarons, Rays, and Thomases in the community—I felt vulnerable and on edge. But even stronger than my feeling of discomfort was my feeling of disdain towards them. So I didn’t give them a chance to be anything other than agressors. Certain that all I’d hear would be catcalls and taunts, I blocked my ears to their voices. I ducked away from them when they beckoned to me. And I refused to look them in the eye… which meant that I never actually saw them.

*

In early December Christine arrived, bringing forth a sea change in my own heart and, I think, in the community. She came here with new eyes…and a kind of an x-ray vision that could pierce through the veils that usually shroud our perception. For her, there were no categories of perpetrator/victim, oppressor/oppressed, guilty/inncocent. Instead, she saw only potential. And in her conversations with people—including the men in the rum shops—she addressed each soul as a bearer of divine light.

I observed these interactions skepctically at first—convinced that Christine was wasting her time. But I began to notice that the men, whom I’d deemed incapable of dignity, were treating Christine with the utmost respect. Their eyes would shine when they spoke with her—and not just as a result of all the liquor.

It’s interesting how, when the truest, most beautiful part of us is addressed, it’s that part that responds. In my twelve months here, I’d viewed these men as animals, and, in turn they acted as such. But Christine saw through to their nobility, to their goodness. When I—still hiding behind my fears—recounted to her some of the things these men had done, Christine shared a quote from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with me:

O ye friends of God! Show ye an endeavor that all the nations and communities of the world, even the enemies, put their trust, assurance and hope in you; that if a person falls into errors for a hundred-thousand times he may yet turn his face to you, hopeful that you will forgive his sins; for he must not become hopeless, neither grieved nor despondent. This is the conduct and the manner of the people of Bahá.

I began to realize that the only cure for the cancerous loathing that had taken root in me was forgiveness. I needed to open my heart to it…and I needed, also, to humble myself before these men who I had judged and disdained, and to ask that they forgive me.

*

In the Ruhi Book 1 course “Reflections on the Life of the Spirit,” we study about our true identity, investigating the question of what it means to be human. We learn through the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh that we are spiritual beings having a very brief material experience. Our reality is our soul, which associates with the body only for the duration of its sojourn through this world.  What this means, then, is that the essence of who we are has nothing to do with gender, culture, or life circumstance. Bahá’u’lláh tells us that our true essence, our soul, was created noble. We are, He says, His lamps, molded from the clay of love, and each one of us has been given the capacity to reflect His light.

But there is a material element to our reality that we cannot deny. Those of us whose souls happen to be associated with a female body are in a position of physical vulnerability in relation to men. Violence has been perpetrated against women’s bodies since perhaps the beginning of human existence, and women throughout the world continue to be oppressed at the hands of men.  But there are a myriad forms of oppression…and I think that when we look deeply within ourselves, many of us will find that we, too, have been oppressors.

“What oppression is more grievous,” Bahá’u’lláh asks us, “than that a soul, seeking the truth, should not know where to go and from whom to find it?”

*

Jaron was released from prison after six months—much earlier than anticipated. I remember the day (right after returning from my trip to the States) that I saw him sitting in the doorway of his girlfriend’s home. I stared at him, stunned…and proceeded to turn on my heels without a word. Furious with my friend for letting this criminal back into her life, endangering her and her children, I refused to visit her for over a week. When I’d see Jaron on the road, I’d avert my eyes. But, sometime in mid-December, the local pre-school teacher invited me and Christine to an end-of-year trip to the beach, with all the pre-school students and their parents. Lo and behold, Jaron came along too. Once again, I sat on the bus in stony silence, while Christine reached out to “the enemy.” She hadn’t officially met him yet, so she introduced herself, and asked him about his life. I, feeling I knew plenty about his life already, just stared out the window. But when we arrived at the beach, something began to shift in me. I watched Jaron with his children. I watched as he gently took the hand of his four-year-old daughter and walked with her along the surf. I watched him build a sandcastle with his son, and heard the two of them laugh as the waves lapped at their feet. I watched him being a father…I watched him trying to be good.

I walked up to him and his children, my heart beating fast, not quite knowing what I would say, but certain that I had to say something. I had a half-eaten packet of biscuits in my hand, and I awkwardly offered one to Jaron. He took it, said thank you, looked at me quickly and then looked away. “Jaron,” I told him, “please forgive me for how I’ve been treating you.” In my fumbling, inarticulate manner, I began to explain to him that the way I’d acted was the opposite of how Bahá’ís are supposed to be. But, I told him, I was scared for his family, who I loved very much. I was scared, I said, that he would hurt them again. Jaron was silent for a while, staring at the sand. Then he told me that he held the same fears. He said he knew he could relapse at any moment, but he also believed that he could change, even if no one else thought it possible. “I’m trying,” he said. And I knew that he was.

That night, Christine suggested that we start saying the Long Healing Prayer for him every evening. She also proposed that we make him a CD of life-affirming songs, like “See Me Beautiful”* (lyrics below). We ended up making him two CDs, and he listens to them with his kids every day. We gave him a prayer book—and last week, his girlfriend told me that they’ve been saying prayers as a family every night. He has begun to help her with her children’s class. I visited them a few days ago, and Jaron cooked me a lunch of chicken and dumplings. As we ate, he told me how he’s recently been singing, and how it’s his favorite form of praising God. In between bites of chicken, we sang “By the Rivers of Babylon” together.

I know that Jaron’s road to recovery may be long, and laden with setbacks. Cycles of addiction and violence are not easily reversed…but as he struggles and strives, I will strive too. I will strive to see him beautiful.

*

We were washing clothes in the river earlier in the week when Ray appeared…and I tensed up the moment I saw him. Even though Christine was there with me, and we were just a shout away from the home of mighty Mam Liz and her cutlass, I was frightened. “Please go away, please go away,” I prayed. He was bathing in a lower part of the river from where we were washing, and I wasn’t sure if he saw us. I tried to concentrate on soaping, scrubbing, rinsing…but the next time I looked up, Ray was walking towards us. Christine, who was across the pool from me, greeted him first, and he sat down beside her. With the crash of the small waterfall behind me, I couldn’t really make out what they were saying, but I detected no sign of tension or hostility in either of them (“She doesn’t have clue what he’s capable of,” I thought). Ray, I noticed, had a large crayfish in his hands, and was showing it to Christine. Their conversation was still muffled, but a word suddenly rang out loud and clear: Bahá’u’lláh. It dawned on me that they were talking about the Faith, and I realized that I had to get up and go over there.

I was still on my guard as I sat down on a smooth rock beside them, but I tried to at least show some common courtesy toward Ray. I nodded to him, mumbled “Good Morning,” but remained silent and he and Christine talked about God. Ray said that he carries his Bible around with him in his backpack every day. He doesn’t go to church, he told us, but he prays as he walks, and feels his only source of strength is the Word of God. He told us that he never knew his father, and wishes he could have. We learned that he has a beautiful 7-year-old daughter, but her mother doesn’t permit him to see her. He spoke openly about his struggles with drug additction, about his violent past…and he told us that he loves to come to the river, because it makes his soul feel at peace.

I had kept my gaze downward, toward the rocks in the river, throughout most of this conversation…but when Ray began to speak about his daughter, I had to look up. I looked at him. And I didn’t see a beast anymore. I saw a yearning soul, a human being, a brother. And then the three of us prayed together, right there in the river. We bowed our heads, and Christine and I offered Bahá’í prayers for healing, for spiritual strength. Ray prayed from his heart. In his prayer, he asked the Heavenly Father for forgiveness, for mercy…and he asked Him to please bless the two sisters in his company today.

As we prayed, I was reminded of a passage from Marzieh Gail’s Dawn over Mount Hira:

…the desire to be understood is common to us all. And yet no one understands us.  We do not understand ourselves. We all know what we mean by “understood” but the term is hared to define…

A noted writer has said that human beings are each on individual islands, shouting to each other across seas of misunderstandings. But prayer is the great simplifying factor and a dispeller of confusion. Through our communion with God we become explained to ourselves and enabled to express our best and truest selves to others.

*

Thomas stopped me on the road one afternoon when I was walking home from a children’s class in Mahaut River. Before the Christine Era (haha—BCE), I might have just assumed he was drunk, and continued walking. But this time, something prompted me to stop, and to hear what he had to say. He extended his hand to me, and a shook it, still a little hesitatingly. “Good afternoon,” Thomas said. “I just wanted to tell you that I’ve observed the work you Bahá’ís are doing, and I admire it. I can see that it is good.” Well, that certainly disarmed me…enough to try to show this gentlemen a bit of respect, rather than reproach. I asked him his name, told him mine, shared with him a bit more about the Bahá’í Faith and the work we’re striving to carry out. He listened, nodding, and asked me before we parted ways if I’d be willing to visit him and his family this weekend, to share more with them. I told him yes, I would, it would be an honor.

Christine and I visited his small, bright home the following Sunday. He had hibiscus flowers in his yard, a neatly trimmed lawn, and a view of the sea. There to greet us, along with Thomas himself, were his mother, sister, and two radiant children. We sat on a small wooden bench under an orange tree, and Thomas told us about his life. He’s battled with addiction for decades, he said, and his deepest regret is when the grips of rum prevent him from reading bedtime stories to his children. But he is trying so hard to raise them right, and prays every day that they’ll grow up to be better, stronger.  He wants desperately to pull himself up, he said, but it’s a mighty struggle. There are no rehabilitation Centres that he knows of in Dominica, and certainly not in the Carib Territory. “And,” he added, “no one but my children believes I can change.”

The conversation soon turned to the Faith, and we discussed his questions—wonderful questions—about the life of Bahá’u’lláh, the purpose of His mission, our understanding of prayer. At the end of the visit, Thomas asked if we could leave him with some words of Bahá’u’lláh to read, and we gave him a copy of The Hidden Words.

The following week, I saw Thomas on the road again, in that same spot where we’d first met. “I read your book,” he told me. “Well, I tried to read it. I opened it up to a passage that made no sense to me. I studied it, and thought about it. Then I closed the book, because I still didn’t understand. The next day, I read it again, and again. And now, I think I finally understand. God is telling me that I am noble.”

*

During a recent training course for children’s class teachers, while discussing appropriate methods of discipline and punishment, Christine shared a story with us. She’d learned about a community in Southern Africa where discipline was reinforced through love and encouragement. When a child committed a transgression, the entire village would come together and—seated in a circle—each person would recount something about the child that was good: a positive memory from the child’s earlier years, a beautiful qualitiy they’d observed in him or her, an acknowledgement of the unique contributions the child had made in the community…and by the time everyone in the village had shared an affirmation of the child’s nobility, the child, too, began to see it, to feel it, to believe in it…and to want to live up to it.

I know that transformation doesn’t always come easy, especially when working against the weight of generations of oppression, violence, and dysfunction. At times, I feel powerless before this weight. But I also know that, while I can’t change the behavior of these men, I can contribute to their process of healing by changing my own heart and eyes. I can pray for them, and love them. And I can try to see them for who they really are.

________

*See Me Beautiful” by Red Grammer

See me beautiful
Look for the best in me
It’s what I really am
And all I want to be
It may take some time
It may be hard to find
But see me beautiful

See me beautiful
Each and every day
Could you take a chance?
Could you find a way
To see me shining through
In every thing I do
And see me beautiful

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It feels like everything is intensifying…and moving so quickly that I don’t know if I’ll be able to produce weekly entries for “Sounds of Laughter” during my remaining few months in Dominica. But it brings my heart such joy to be able to share these stories with you, so I will strive for bi-weekly postings at the very least. AND, it looks like we’ll be getting internet in our home in the coming weeks, so there might be posts on days other than Thursday. Crazy, huh? 😉

I am abidingly grateful for your encouragement, support, prayers, and love.

 

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A Blossoming

There are no graves here. These mountains and plains are a cradle and a stepping-stone. Whenever you pass by the field where you have laid your ancestors look well thereupon, and you shall see yourselves and your children dancing hand in hand.
~Kahlil Gibran

Can we conceive what humanity would be if it did not know the flowers?
~Maurice Maeterlinck

*

Last Saturday evening, a mother gave birth to a baby girl.

The child came into the world shortly after 8pm. She weighed scarcely more than four pounds, had a thick head of hair, long eyelashes, ruby red cheeks. She lived long enough for her mother and father to behold her, to hold her, to whisper three times in her tiny ear the verse:

I have come by God’s command, have been made manifest for His remembrance and have been created for the service of the One who is the Almighty, the Well-Beloved.

She lived just long enough to be showered with love. And in the early hours of Sunday morning, she took her leave.

*

The pregnancy had been a tumultuous one. Acute morning sickness kept the mother bed-ridden for much of her first term, and in the second term, she learned that there was fluid in her child’s brain and lungs. She also learned, at this time, that the child she carried was a girl.

We lit many candles for this baby, seated on the floor of her mother’s living room, reciting the Tablet of Ahmad, the Long Healing Prayer, the tender prayers for infants. Each sonogram and doctor’s visit revealed further complications, but the mother clung to hope. One specialist advised her to terminate the pregnancy, but the mother refused. She wanted to hold that baby girl in her arms, even if only for a moment.

*

Two Tuesdays ago, we had a party for the baby. We put on dresses and nailpolish and high heels, cooked a feast of banana pancakes and sausage omelettes, sang silly love songs, offered prayers of thanks, lit some more candles, and celebrated the baby’s forthcoming arrival. The mother, with her bulging belly, was radiant.

She awoke the next morning with labor pains. Her husband, daughter and I accompanied her to the Princess Margaret Hospital in Roseau, where the doctors assigned her a bed in the pre-natal ward, and scheduled a Caesarean Section for Tuesday, January 11.

But the baby girl had other plans.

On Saturday evening, as the baby’s big sister, cousin, and I were back at home making cacao tea, we received a call from the mother. Her water had just broken, she told us, and it flooded the room. She marveled at how she could have been carrying an ocean of water inside of her. “Baby wants to come now,” she said. “Please hurry.”

Buses from the Carib Territory stop running at 5pm, but after a few frantic phone calls, we found a benevolent driver who would take us. We prayed the whole ride into town.

Our bus bulled up to the curb the moment the doctors were wheeling the mother–now in the throes of labor–into the operating room. Her daughter was able to reach out and touch her mother’s hand as they rushed her past us. We sat outside in the warm night, and waited. Prayed. Braided each other’s hair. Texted loved ones and asked for their prayers.

And then the mother appeared beside us, in her slippers and hospital gown, looking like she’d just taken a stroll through the Botanical Gardens. She conveyed the joyous news that the baby had entered the world, that she was alive, and that she had come so quickly that the doctors didn’t even have to operate. I think I started dancing, right there in the hallway of the maternity ward.

Only the mother and father were permitted to visit the baby in her incubator that night, so the sister, cousin, and I walked through the starlit city to the cousin’s home on the outskirts of town. We planned to return to the hospital first thing in the morning to meet the baby girl (“What’s her name, what’s her name?” we’d asked the mother. “You’ll know soon,” she’d responded with a twinkle in her eye).

We were too excited to sleep at first. The cousin made us three cups of thick, sugary coffee, and we smooshed onto the small livingroom sofa and giggled and ate handfuls of cornflakes right out of the box, until we finally drifted off to sleep sometime after midnight.

I was awoken by a text message from the mother at 3am. It read:

“Den, baby passed away one hour ago.”

The two girls held each other, and wept, the older cousin whispering to the baby’s big sister, “I will always be a sister for you.” I couldn’t find words of comfort, and sat on the sofa, stunned. The cousin reached out for my hand. “God knows what He do, Den-den,” she murmured. “God knows what He do.”

Tears didn’t come right away for me. But when I called my own sister, who has always been able to open up the deepest places in my heart, the tears were released. We cried together, and reflected on the beauty and agony of this life. “It’s just a quick blossoming,” she said. “Even if we live for a hundred years. We have so little time…and all that matters is how well we love.”

*

The burial was yesterday afternoon. In the morning, the mother asked me if I’d walk down the road to her Aunty, who has one of the loveliest gardens in the Carib Territory, to get flowers for the funeral wreaths. Nearly one year ago to the day, I’d visited that same garden, collecting flowers for the mother’s wedding last January 16th. The Aunty filled my arms with orange and pink and white blossoms–the latter being a special flower that only blooms in the month of January. As she clipped the thorns from the stems, the Aunty told me about the three children that she’d lost, but how she still thanks God every day. She sees His face in every flower, she said.

*

O thou beloved maidservant of God, although the loss of a son is indeed heart-breaking and beyond the limits of human endurance, yet one who knoweth and understandeth is assured that the son hath not been lost but, rather, hath stepped from this world into another, and she will find him in the divine realm. That reunion shall be for eternity, while in this world separation is inevitable and bringeth with it a burning grief…

That beloved child addresseth thee from the hidden world: `O thou kind Mother, thank divine Providence that I have been freed from a small and gloomy cage and, like the birds of the meadows, have soared to the divine world–a world which is spacious, illumined, and ever gay and jubilant. Therefore, lament not, O Mother, and be not grieved; I am not of the lost, nor have I been obliterated and destroyed. I have shaken off the mortal form and have raised my banner in this spiritual world. Following this separation is everlasting companionship. Thou shalt find me in the heaven of the Lord, immersed in an ocean of light.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

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