Together

Who will cry when I go from here?

I wonder

Those who steal the earth right from under me?

Those who plunder?

Those who collate, calculate, study and measure?

Those in golden cloud castles that rain down heady dreams of pleasure?

Those who live for today in case there’s no tomorrow?

Those with hope to spare?

Those who barter and borrow?

Those who fall asleep world-weary and wake gasping for air?

Those who wander the afterlife, uncertain why they’re there?

Who will dig all these graves?

I wonder

We who discuss, examine and ponder?

We who end the road in a muffled wet clay shout?

We who do what we must to survive

To get out?

We who refuse the burden:

“It’s their job, not mine”?

We who forget we might be next in line?

We who think grand thoughts while our plans go awry?

We who choke on our silence

And splutter

And die?

I see it coming on light-streaked wheels of thunder

Who will cry when I go from here?

Will you?

I wonder.

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Botho/Ubuntu: A dialogue with the Dalai Lama

At last! Something fantastic and historic is happening in Botswana (rather than our A-list neighbour South Africa, not that I’m jealous or anything). The Dalai Lama is paying us a visit, along with human rights experts, neuroscientists and spiritual leaders, to talk about the concept of Botho/Ubuntu and healing trauma in light of recent scientific discoveries. Botho/Ubuntu is about interdependence; essentially, the idea that each of us exists because others exist.

As a Buddhist, a believer in the power of dialogue and an African for whom the notion of interdependence is culturally ingrained, I’m really excited about this and want as many people to experience it as possible. Just saying, this is a good time to visit Botswana. Wildlife, sunshine, starry skies, insightful conversation and the Dalai Lama.

The event is hosted by the Mind & Life Institute and will be held at the University of Botswana. Tickets are on sale now until Friday, 7 July, at www.BotswanaDialogue.org.

Here are more details from the press release:

In a statement, the Dalai Lama said, “My dear friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu has told me about the beautiful African notion of Botho/Ubuntu, which means “I am because you are.” This resonates powerfully with the ancient Indian idea of interdependence. In participating in the Mind & Life Dialogue, as well as meeting and talking with members of the public, I hope to gain a clearer understanding of this idea and explore ways in which it may help promote compassion and understanding in our world.”

Defining humanity through our connections with one another, Botho/Ubuntu is a view that is reflected also in the Dalai Lama’s teachings. Examining African values and healing practices in light of new scientific research on social connection and trauma, the Mind & Life Dialogue in Botswana explores the potential of Botho/Ubuntu as a framework for healing the legacy and trauma of wars and colonialism, and advancing social justice and women’s equality.

The conference is open to the general public with discounted tickets available to students and Botswana youth (ages 15 – 35). Please note that all ticket holders will receive a security clearance prior to the conference, so tickets must be purchased by 7 July.

Topics to be presented during the conference include:

  • I am because you are: A scientific perspective on interdependence.
  • Botho as a basis for intergenerational dialogue.
  • The biology of care and conflict in groups.
  • The history and contemporary frame of Ubuntu/Botho.
  • Traditional healing practices and the restoration of unity in environment and society.
  • Oppression and violence against women: Cultural practices and community support.
  • Goodness: Exploring the meaning of Ubuntu.
  • Emotional trauma and how it affects the brain.
  • The human capacities and challenges of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Thupten Jinpa, Chair of the Mind & Life Institute’s Board of Directors and the principal English interpreter to the Dalai Lama since 1985, described the upcoming conference in Gaborone as “an historic opportunity for the people of Africa to benefit from the unique wisdom of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as he encounters profound issues of modern African society through the lens of Botho/Ubuntu. Guided by presentations and conversations with an international panel of experts, the conference will bravely explore African issues, from its sacred pre-colonial history to the importance of gender equality, healthy communities and peaceful coexistence.”

 The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and is an internationally revered proponent of secular ethics, inter-religious harmony and human happiness. He is co-author with Archbishop Desmond Tutu of the best-selling “Book of Joy.” He is also the recipient of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his message of nonviolence, reconciliation and reverence for all living beings.

 Mind & Life Dialogues with the Dalai Lama began in 1987 as intimate conversations with leading scientists and scholars to develop an understanding of the mind in relation to human behavior. These conversations have since grown to include large public and private events addressing critical issues of modern life at the intersection of scientific and contemplative understanding.

The Mind & Life Institute is a nonprofit organization founded in 1991, providing grant funding for research projects and think tanks, and hosting academic conferences and Dialogues with the 14th Dalai Lama. Its mission is to alleviate suffering and promote flourishing by advancing the interdisciplinary field of contemplative sciences, deepening understanding of the mind, and promoting evidence-based applications of meditative practices in real-world contexts.

Deep Down You Know You Need Me

 How immigration is like a bad relationship

It all begins with a casual flirtation, a playful “maybe”. You like the idea of her, and you’re almost certain she likes you back. You’ve never been there before, but why not? Life is short and you want adventure. And something about her speaks to you, calls to you, makes you think, Yep. That’s where I need to be. Maybe you’re driven by desperation, by the need to flee a dysfunctional relationship where your life is in actual peril. Or maybe you just want a change of scenery, or more opportunities, a chance at the life you always dreamed of.

As soon as you arrive, your world changes. The air smells fresher and everything is new and exciting. You feel like you have never walked such beautiful, soulful streets, seen such well-defined architecture, experienced such passionate culture, tasted such delicious food. You are safe and deliriously happy. Everything about her makes you giddy, flooding your brain with chemicals that make you want to stay forever. This is it, you tell yourself. This is home.

For a while it’s all good. You take moonlit strolls, hand-in-hand, breathing easy. Love doesn’t have to hurt, after all. Hurray! All your previous nationalities fall away. They were just dress rehearsals. All the pain has led you here, and this is where you belong. You fall into step with each other, find a comfortable rhythm.

And then, as the honeymoon period draws to a close, you start to notice things. Little things at first, like the fact that those soulful streets might not be as safe as you thought, and that passionate culture can also be oppressive and cruel. But nobody’s perfect, right? You’re not about to throw away a perfectly decent country just because of a few teeny tiny flaws.

Sooner or later, you reach the point where you have to account for yourself. Your beloved has put up with you for a while, maybe a couple of years, and now she can’t remember what she loves about you. You have to remind her, in detail. You have to sell yourself once more, show her how attractive and talented and brilliant you are, how loving, how good at stroking her ego. You want me here, you tell her. You need me. She hems and haws and says, yeah, OK. And you walk hand-in-hand a few more years.

But then, one day, your beloved shows her claws. Maybe you’re not the victim, not yet. Maybe she’s being nasty to someone else, someone like you but not quite. You could speak out, but you don’t want to be that person who makes a fuss, so you keep your head down, grateful that you weren’t the target. She loves me, you tell yourself. She’d never treat me that way. That person must have had it coming.

Account time rolls around again, and once more you have to justify your presence in your beloved’s sacred space. And maybe this time you think, this is silly. I can’t spend the rest of my life periodically explaining why I deserve to be here. So you do what many people do at this stage in a relationship – you try to make it permanent. If you’re very, very lucky, she accepts your proposal. If you’re even luckier, you live happily ever after because her folks love you and her snooty friends think you’re cute.

But maybe, despite being official, you will always be treated like you don’t belong. She might even respond with a resounding NO which fills you with despair. After all these years? After all you’ve given? You’ve been the model lover. What more does she want? If you don’t like it, she tells you, then leave. But leaving is not an option. You think back to your former lovers, the ones who left you bleeding, and you think, nope. Better a broken heart than a broken jaw.

There are a thousand and one reasons to stay. Beggars can’t be choosers. Better the devil you know. Life is much better here than out there. Lesser evils, and all that. All those things are true and valid. If your only choices are death and disenfranchisement, there is no real choice. You tell yourself whatever you have to so you can survive, so you can get through the day. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never…

Really, though? Really? You know, underneath the adopted patriotism and fierce, stubborn love, that abuse is still abuse. Love comes in many forms, yes. Absolutely, yes. But monsters come in many forms, too.

 

 

Skeleton Song

I want to go home.

I am a traveller, a visitor of worlds, swimming in vast oceans of light and song and memory. I love my travels, for they make me wealthy beyond measure. But wealth is heavy. Sometimes you want to sit and go through your pretty things, admire the way the light glints off their polished surfaces. But other times you want to put them away, cut the rope and let yourself float away.

I want to go home.

I long for the familiar scent of damp earth and the promise of more rain, the taste of the air, the sound of voices I know. I long to sleep in my own bed and wear my own clothes and open my eyes to stare at my own ceiling.

I want to go home.

And I want it to feel like home when I get there, not like something I knew lifetimes ago, some stolen half-remembered treasure, some word on the tip of my tongue that I will never quite catch no matter how hard I try. I want it to feel like home, and it won’t. Ever. You can’t borrow someone’s soul and wear it on your back like a jacket. You will always know it doesn’t fit. You can lie to the world, but you will know, and the truth will burn you.

I want to go home…

…But there is no home to go to. So what must I do? I must craft a new home from the threads of stories, from the snippets of conversation I stole from elders in my childhood, from my blood, and bones, and the things I know in the deepest parts of me, the parts too dark to be civilised and too pure to be chained.

What is lost is lost, and wanting will not bring it back.

I wrestle with this giant truth, kicking and biting and drawing blood. Every night we dance like this, like ravenous warriors, like silent predators. And every morning, weary with death and tears and unravelling, I burrow deep into this truth and let it soothe me, because it is my friend, and my nightmare, my angel and my nemesis. I must love it, and loathe it, and live with it. I must bear it because as much as it pains me, as much as I grieve…

…It is true.

The First and Final Warning

Be careful, friend.

You are too loud in quiet spaces, too eager to reveal your ignorance. You think weaving words is something any fool can do because your cousin’s boyfriend’s sister woke up yesterday and is now – Ta-da! – a wordsmith.

Listen. I am very glad for your cousin’s boyfriend’s sister. The discovery of one’s voice is something to be celebrated, always. But let me alert you to your mistake, for your own good, so you never repeat it.

You must show respect. Don’t argue. Don’t play with things you do not comprehend. Don’t tell me everyone is a writer deep down underneath, for while we are all engineers also, you will never catch me telling someone how to build a bridge.

Listen, friend, before you slip and fall and break useful things.

You think half-assing your way through the sacred space of stories is nothing, because no one taught you how to respect words, or whispers, or secret spirit places. Never mind. I am here now. I will teach you.

While you played marbles I created worlds in the back of my school exercise book. While you tried on one “calling” after another, discarding them like torn hand-me-downs, I was deep in the belly of the universe, swimming in tales the likes of which your mind could not possibly conjure.

Words have made me a fire than never goes out. I am a warrior, born to this, bred for it. I am a storm. Don’t step into my arena and try to wound me with pebbles. You will fail. You will falter, and I will not help you up.

Be courteous, friend. If you are not…

I will write you into a corner.

I will write you into a deep, dark hole and bury you in splendour. I will break you apart in a thousand wonderful ways until you bleed words, until I have made you a mage, until all that is glorious in you unravels into glistening threads sticky with story sap, and you are utterly undone.  And you will thank me, because you will not understand. You will be so grateful to be suffocated by the sheer wonder of words that you will not even know when it’s all over.

Be wary of those who do what you cannot, for we are all magicians and our spells are not the same. There are wonders all around us, wonders and weapons, and people who know how to wield them.

I am very, very watchful, friend, among those I do not understand. Mouth shut, eyes open, pen at the ready.

Be watchful, too.

Be careful.

Eyes

Hey. Wake up.

Huh?

Wake up! We were not born blind.

We were not born…what?

We were born with eyes that see through the backs of our heads, eyes that swivel round in our skulls and look past the curvature of time. But somewhere along the way They gave us frosted glasses that turned everything hazy.

Who are They?

I don’t know. The Man, or Society, or the gremlins in our heads. It doesn’t matter who They are.

But…

Listen. Our souls know what we used to see. Our souls know in that funny way that souls do, that prickle on the back of the neck way, that nagging pull in the belly way. Our souls know the world is bigger than They tell us.

And yet…

Yes? Say it.

And yet we feel as though the walls are closing in. When we see one of our own do well we’re filled with fierce pride followed by a pang of sadness because now that she’s done it, we can’t.

And…?

We wish we didn’t feel that way. We wish we didn’t think, “There’s already one of us doing that. Better try something else.” We wish we didn’t bend and twist and try to find new spaces because all the other ones are taken. We wish we didn’t think there was only room for one barrier-breaker.

And yet…

Yes? Say it.

And yet stories are infinite. If every soul that had ever lived had told a thousand tales, there would still be room for more. We know this. We know it in our blood. We know there can never be too many.

But our minds see closing doors and barred windows because, despite #BlackGirlMagic, in the cramped quarters of the real world Black Girl can only do so much. “We like you, but we’ve filled our diversity quota. Maybe next time. Keep trying.”

Keep trying? No, thank you. You had your chance to dance with us and now we’re moving on.

We don’t want to feel small anymore. We don’t want to drink the potion. We want to remember that opportunity is just a word.

Yes. Yes. Walls are imaginary. We don’t need anyone to give us a chance, a leg up, a stamp of approval. We can make our own opportunities. We can be our own champions. Magicians don’t ask for permission to shine. Whoever They are, we can dance dizzy circles around Them on Their best days. Why do we cower and grovel as if we haven’t learned how to wield our gifts?

Ah, how we wish we could be that fearless! That certain. We wish we didn’t let those frosted lenses trip us up. We wish we didn’t lose the knowledge of our self-worth somewhere between leaving the desk and reaching the door.

We ARE fearless. We are certain.

We are blind…

Yes. But here’s the thing about glasses: we can take them off. Wake up! We were not born blind.

Brave

I am weak. I am damaged and ridiculous. I am a coward. I know this because I have been told, in words and gestures, in disdainful expressions, in mocking laughter. Yet I know this to be both a profound truth and a wicked lie. I am broken but intact, messed up but well-adjusted. I am human.

Humanity is a complex thing; it manifests in different ways in each of us. We have outgoing humans and withdrawn humans, confident humans and anxious humans, aggressive humans and soft-hearted humans. It’s pretty cool, actually. What’s not cool is the way we forget what it means to be human in so many of our interactions.

There’s a saying that implores us to be kind to everyone because we don’t know what they’re facing.  We’re all in the same boat, waging our private wars, but we pretend otherwise. We’re always talking about how hard it is to trust people. We write books and sing songs about losing trust, breaking trust, earning trust, as if it is a precious gem we carry close to our hearts.

It makes no sense, because every single day we trust people we don’t know with various aspects of our lives. At the bank, at the hospital, in the bus, at the office. We let strangers educate our children, control how we access our money, tend to our cars, computers and other tools, make our food and manage our health, yet we find it so difficult to trust each other with the painful truth we all have in common – the fact that we all fear something.

We can’t tell the people around us when we’re not OK. When we need help, or space, or reciprocity. We can’t tell them because we are afraid they will judge us. Yet it never occurs to us to worry that the chef at the restaurant will poison our food, that the bank teller will run off with our money, or that schoolteachers will kidnap our kids. We are so brave and yet so cowardly. We jump out of helicopters and drive drunk and shove various poisons down our throats. We conquer nature and professional obstacles and people who stand in our way. Physical threats don’t faze us. Psychological threats, on the other hand, are almost too much to bear.

My struggle has always been anxiety. The list of things that trigger it is long and baffling, even to me. Crowds. Big houses. Tunnels. Camping. Immigration offices. Dense vegetation. Giant trees. Open water. Certain kinds of spiders. Sudden schedule changes. Social gatherings involving more than ten people. Public speaking. Horror films. Trailers for horror films. Clowns (Thank you, Stephen King). Swarms of insects. Things that resemble swarms of insects. Bedrooms with more than four corners. Open cupboards. Sinks full of dishes. Meeting new people. Conflict. Borrowing or lending money. Driving, especially at night. Sleeping in a new place.

People respond to my anxiety in the only way they can. When they tell me to toughen up, to be more aggressive, to “stand up for” myself, they’re trying to help. They fling logic at me as if I don’t know that the spider won’t hurt me or the walls aren’t really closing in, and despite their good intentions it only makes me worse. So I don’t tell them. I hide. I lie. I suffer in silence.

And yet we all know what it’s like to be so afraid that we can barely move.  We know all too well how our chests contracts until it’s hard to breathe, and our stomachs knot up, and for hours after the panic passes we still feel a little sick. We know how hard it is to keep it together, to cover it up so people won’t think less of us. We know sometimes  we have to escape to a quiet place, the bathroom, the parking lot, the space behind the stairs, to perform some trick that calms us down. We take deep breaths or count backwards. We pray, or meditate, or give ourselves a pep talk. We tune out those vibrant, happy, sane people who have it all figured out, and we never stop to wonder who, exactly, those people are and whether they are nothing more than a myth.

We are all broken. We are all weak, and damaged, and ridiculous. We are all cowards. In those moments when we can’t understand someone else’s fear, we should try to remember our own. Remember what it feels like. Remember that we are human, and that ultimately it’s better to feel too much than too little. And when our own fear threatens to overwhelm us, maybe we can remember the fear of others. Remember that they are just as insecure. That maybe they don’t know how to help us. That they are doing the best they can.

We can try to understand – ourselves and each other. We can say what we feel rather than what we think people want to hear. We can ask people what they need instead of telling them what we want to offer. We can be open.  We can do, in our intimate conversations and everyday relationships, what we do so easily in banks, restaurants and car-washes. We can make trust our default setting. We can give each other the benefit of the doubt.

We can be brave.

Heart Over Matter

They say it’s so hard to love that only the select few can manage it, or only mothers, or preachers, or ascetics, or blah blah blah. What BS. It’s not difficult to love unconditionally; that’s the only love there is.  It’s not difficult to be kind, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to try, even for a minute, to see the world from another perspective. It seems difficult because we buy into the narrative, the same way we think we could never climb a mountain until an ailing octogenarian does it.

I’ve never met a straight-up villain. They abound in fiction, gossip, news and our egocentric fantasies, but rarely in real life. Why do we keep perpetuating the myth of elusive compassion? How do we expect anyone to make an effort if all we ever say is that the odds are stacked against us? In my experience people want to do the kind thing far more than the mean thing, but our programming says love is hard and we’re only human. So we do the mean thing, which takes up far more energy and psychological space.

All I hear every day is how rotten the world is, so even though I want to hug you I’m going to fold my arms until the urge fades. It’s stupid and painful. We need to stop talking about how awful everyone is and how tough it is to be loving. It’s a lot more difficult to cut ourselves off from our innate desire to connect. Most people have good intentions, but we need them to be monsters for the purposes of whatever dramatic story we want to tell ourselves.

I don’t know about this dog-eat-dog world people talk about. In my world everyone’s brushing stardust off their unicorns. Sometimes they miss a few grains. Sometimes the unicorns bite. Sometimes Strawberry Volcano spews scalding hot chocolate sauce and everybody has to run. But hey, life goes on. As far as I can see, we have to actively stop ourselves from being kind, so maybe let’s just…not. Not put up that wall. Not reinforce the ludicrous notion that social creatures that crave contact don’t WANT to connect. It’s absurd and dishonest and dangerous.

Every day we do awesome things. Raise children, make art, run marathons, build relationships, overcome illness and heartache, serve our communities, achieve various goals. If we can do any of that, we can definitely embody more compassion than a monk on a mountaintop. We don’t need to fake it; we need to get rid of the pile of junk that blocks the way.

It’s not hard. Just pick up a broom and start sweeping.

Irreconcilable Differences

Dear Anger,

We need to talk.

I have loved you obstinately for as long as I can remember. I have fed you with news I need not have entertained, stories I need not have read, energy better served lauding what is good. We have lain awake long nights together, intertwined in our dizzy, youthful passion, so sure, so outraged, so right.

I see you, Anger. I know all your twisted machinations, your helpless despair, your tear-stained hiding place under the stairs. I know you deeper and better than I ever wanted to. You are mighty and fierce, a storm we all must weather, but I confess that at last I am weary of you. You are heavy and I am old. You are bloated with the pain of all ages, all things, all worlds. My back is breaking. I want to dance again, and there is no dancing with you, except the mad, shrieking convulsions of the dying. I am tired of your indignation, your borrowed horror, your boiling, blistering blood.

This is where I lay you down, burden of my ancestors, inherited fury, impotent and backward-glancing. This is where I stop, and breathe, and live again.  This is where I say, enough.

You have served me as best you could. You have taught me things, cruel, vicious, necessary things, and I am grateful. I will not forget. But I must keep walking, and you cannot follow. You are not honour. You are not justice. You are a frail and desperate thing trapped in a cage, craving company. I know you believe that only you can make things right, but you are wrong. You are all temper and bruises and burned bridges. You don’t play fair. You break things, and I want to build them.

For so long I followed you blindly, convinced that condemning the cracks was a worthier cause than strengthening the foundation. But why waste energy trying to tear down the prison when I can craft a key? Why despair over a world I loathe when I can help create a world worth loving?

Oh, Anger, stop crying your crocodile tears. We both know you’ll forget me the moment I’m gone. The world is full of young, naive hearts just waiting for you to break them. They will fall hard. We all do. We can’t help it.

Maybe one day we will learn how to do without you. Until then…try not to rip too many worlds apart.

Goodbye and good riddance,

Your former lover

The Martyr’s Manifesto

Don’t dream too deeply

Don’t get carried away

The dark will come soon

Don’t be brave, darling

Don’t attempt to light the way

I swallow the moon

 

Dance

Flutter, fly, feel

And I will break you

I will

Dance

Till you believe it’s real

And I will break you

I will

 

Lie still in your bed

Know your place and don’t forget

Silence is golden

Follow all the rules

You’re not brilliant yet

But you are beholden

 

Dance

Your sad little death throes

And I will break you

I will

Dance

Because this is how it goes

And I will break you

I will shame you

I will own you

I will