There’s something about being on the other side of the world that gives me pause when I think about commenting on all that’s happened in America recently. While I love my new home here in rural South Africa beyond reason, there’s part of my heart which will always remain enmeshed with the ground of the country I spent half my life in, and the miles between those I love there only adds to the heartache I feel, watching the painful events unfold, one after another after another. And yet, I think living here in Zululand has given me a perspective which only adds to my long held beliefs, to what I have always known in my heart, so it’s likely time to try to weave some words around all of this.
It seems that, for a few years now in the US, the media and those of us who are adept at social media have been shining a light on the horrific events unfolding around brutality based on race. On religion. On sexual orientation. And these happenings seem to follow each other awfully quickly – almost like the machine gun fire so often used to annihilate those in question. It’s hard to comprehend, for most of us, hard to look at. Though we must. We have to, if we want it to end within our lifetimes – and I think most of us fervently hope that it will.
Here’s what I see as the bottom line on all of this – we are scared to death of anything different than us. Yes, there are historical stories, both personal and broad, which tell us that “those people” are dangerous, are out to get us, will only bring difficult times. And those stories are just that, stories. We, in our hearts, know better. We do.
I learned this in a profound and difficult way, personally. Though I’d been raised by extremely bigoted parents in the early 60’s, when that was more the norm, full of so much fear that suspicion levels were always on high alert, I’d always been drawn to people who lived who they were, aside from all the expectations. Provincetown, a vibrant and funky fishing/art town down the Cape from where I grew up, provided a lot of color, both literal and figurative – though I was made to wash my hands when I returned from “that place”. As if that could remove what I’d seen – the gay couples holding hands, the Portuguese and black people laughing and dancing, the outrageous artists painting buildings, boats, each other. Hand washing couldn’t and didn’t take any of those images away and in part, I’m sure they led me to the less puritanical life I live now.
Apparently I needed more, though. I needed to see a graphic depiction of what I knew instinctively. I need to see, in full color and smells and textures, that we are all the same. And so, when I was still quite young and riding shotgun in an ambulance, thinking that I’d like to be an EMT, it happened.
It was a dark and stormy night, literally. A hot and steamy one, and the smell of fresh asphalt was coming off the road as we arrived at the scene. The road was at that stage where it was very rough, still waiting for the final smooth coat, something that likely led to the accident, as one side was higher than the other. There were three cars – later, we learned that one held a group of four sisters, African American in the verbiage of the day, another a group of what they labeled as Hispanic men – fisherman either coming back or heading out in the early hours of the morning – and then four Caucasian college boys who had been drinking all night. I’ll let you guess which vehicle likely caused the accident.
The scene was a mess, a bloodbath. Two of the cars were upside down, one smashed into an accordion shape, front and back. The impact was such that people – and bodies left after their souls departed – were thrown quite a distance. There were a couple limbs lying about, two heads were wide open. Given the heat, no one was wearing much clothing, several of the guys had been bare chested. And given the roughness of the new layer of asphalt, much of the skin had been abraded to the point that the muscles lay uncovered.
And that’s all, after some trauma work, I see now. The bodies without skin. The gory yet beautiful composition of bone and sinew and muscle, all that lies underneath the skin. Where there had been variations of light, medium and dark skin tones, there was blood and dirt and nothing covering the basic structure of most of the people lying there that night.
Without all the skin, it was impossible to tell what race they were. Without skin, I couldn’t say that one was that different than the other – size and shape, perhaps, but nothing “racial” remained to identify them as like me or like them or those people. Those seemingly innocuous terms that cause so much hurt, and lead to all manner of “othering”.
And were those souls gay or straight, married or single, good or bad? Who knows. I didn’t care then, I don’t care now. They were human beings, people who loved and were loved, creatures of whatever god they believed in. They were here, and then some of them were gone. Others stayed, undoubtedly as marked by that early morning accident as I am.
I’m grateful to them all still, hard as it was to see at that young age, at any age. And as a tribute to them and to whatever forces needed me to see this in order to fully open my heart and shape who I am, I’ve spent my life trying to help others see this pure truth:
We are. We are incredibly beautiful and immensely flawed, as all humans were designed to be. And part of our gig here on earth is that we are colorful on the outside and to varying degrees, on the inside. We believe in what we know, and we love who we love. We just are.
My hope is that one day we’ll allow ourselves to be exactly who we are, and extend the same privilege to every single one of our fellow beings. And that rather than rape and shoot and harass and imprison and punish each other, we’ll learn to care for the hearts of others, for our own hearts with respect, with care, with compassion for every soul brave enough to live their life.
Together, as our fully expressed selves, we weave a tapestry of light, of love, in full color. There could not be anything more beautiful than if we allowed every being their own unique thread.
Because we are meant to be here. Every single one of us.