Nonexistent Lines

“We operate under the illusion that we are separate – individuals proudly defined by flesh and values and our differences from one another. And I think that’s how we got to this point.” Her words – her reaction to the collection of words I had shared with her the day before – suddenly injected new meaning into my own. What I had initially written as a direct expression of my physical surroundings at the time became, through her reframing, a larger commentary on the underlying essence of something at play in the turbulent social context in which we now find ourselves. It also reminded me of the beauty of art as something inherently relational, something that acquires endless variations of meaning in its capacity to be shared. Through this act of sharing, the creator in a way relinquishes ownership over the art and the meaning attached to it, whether or not intended, and therein creates the space for new dialogues to emerge not only between artist and audience but between artist and his or her own art.

I don’t write poetry. I am not a poet by any measure. But there are some experiences that feel only appropriate to express in an abstracted form. And as poets like Rilke have counseled to aspiring young writers, poetry should in fact be reserved for those things that you need to say, that you feel you would die if you were forbidden to say. If something “spread its roots into the very depth of your heart” and “commands you to write,” then you should write it. That is probably the best way to describe the sensation I felt when I had the privilege a few weeks ago to be standing in the most hauntingly beautiful landscape in Ireland. There was a point where I literally felt as though my own being was indistinguishable from my surroundings – a sense that I was seeing the reflection of my own soul in the things around me. The earth felt like a living being in every respect, one with a message that drew you in and made you listen with all of your faculties. It was a message I felt compelled to try to capture however feeble my attempt…

When I exhaled I felt the strong breeze let out its own breath
Melding with mine and carrying it across the soft copper horizon
Slanting the blades of green yellow purple red gold into a gentle curve
A suggestion of a question mark in their ever present slant.
The mist covers the horizon
Pleading with you to stop searching for edges and endings
Rendering everything into one endless expanse
Grass and boulders, heather and wildflowers, fern and moss, mountain and sky.
The sharpness of the individual parts fade into one soft blur of copper and grey strokes
Extending beyond the exterior
Denying you even those fleshy boundaries you take to be concrete
Blurring the lines between skin and air, the inhales of the earth from the exhale of your lungs.
The lines of the hills, the curve of the grass, the roughness of the stones
They define the contours of your soul.
The gurgling undercurrent of the streams that run beneath the ground
Invisible beneath the thick yellow cover but constantly carrying forth secrets
Working in unison with the wind
Leaving its trace in the tilt of the trees and the slant of the hills, the endless bow of the grass.
Concealing a desperate yearning to be heard
But reserving its utterance only for those who seek it
Letting out only whispers
Except
For those dark tangled roots that emerge between the soft brush
Unable to contain their desire to be seen
Jutting out sharpness, demanding your attention
Adding depth and contrast to the expanse of soft copper
But at their tips, nothing more
than pale pink buds.
The land is content in its solitude
But reverberates with a silent outcry all the same
The restless winds that call out for more,
The rough silence soothed by the echoing of birds’ songs
of origins untraceable
And by a conviction
In its own expansiveness
Not allowing high peaks or horizon lines to feign separation
That does not exist.

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While my poem (if it can be considered that) was more reactionary than intentional in its message, it is interesting to place it in the context of the confusion of emotion resonating throughout the world at the moment, as my friend had done in her interpretation after the elections. As I look at my own words now again with new eyes, I want to draw from them the essence of what I felt not only in the raw material of the physical earth but in the social material that surrounds me now: evidence of our interconnectedness with each other and the earth at the deepest of levels.

And, just as I felt in the Irish landscape, the interconnectedness I see evidenced by the cries of the global community now is not one of an abstract idealism but one of a concrete reality. It is a thing at once so brazenly visible and yet at the same time, persistently suppressed into a false obscurity. Paradoxically, many even use the evidence of its existence as proof of the contrary. For this interconnectedness is perhaps most visible in the pain itself — even in the seemingly conflicting forms of pain that manifest in clashes between those who perceive themselves as existing on opposite sides of socially constructed divides. Underneath it all, the responses by all sides speak to the reality of our oneness as human creatures with the same fears and concerns, irrationalities and inner contradictions. It is a truth that, when ignored, allows for ‘othering’ based upon these self-created distinctions. It allows us to forget the humanity in those we feel most different from.

The visceral quality of the collective emotional response – the fear, the pain, the hopelessness, the desperation, the anger, and for some, the elation or new hope – emotions not just felt within the U.S. but in every corner of the globe, particularly underscores the recognition of the deep and complex ties that define our current world order. They reveal a comprehension of the stakes at hand for everyone, whether positive or harmful; of the way the outcome of one country’s election implicates each individual in one way or another, whose ripple effect goes far beyond the sphere of politics and national borders.

The reality of this fact is both beautiful and terrifying: terrifying in the implications of just how much our own actions affect the lives of everyone else on this planet, but beautiful in the implication of how much our actions have the power to affect the lives of everyone else on this planet.

In drawing light to this positive aspect, even opportunity, granted by the current moment, I do not want to minimize the validity of the pain and fear felt by anyone. At the same time, I do want to shift the focus of the conversation. I want people to engage with their pain and fear in recognizing the roots of the same emotions felt by the ‘other side’. I do not want people to condone behavior or views that are objectively racist, bigoted, or full of hate, but I do want them to recognize the beauty and hideousness we are all capable of and the very different contexts and realities that shape the lens through which each person comes to see the world. I do not want people to resign themselves to tolerance for the sake of some kind of utilitarian existence amidst insurmountable differences, but to strive for empathy and its inevitable aftermath – love.

Ultimately, I hope that amidst the hatefulness and destructive divisiveness, people come to recognize the reality of the interconnectedness behind it, and to translate this comprehension into something fruitful. While the conversations all come back to the politics or words and actions of one political candidate, it is equally evident that so much of the fear and pain surrounding it is not merely linked to this one public figure but of what the support for him implies of the values of the society more broadly; of the potential normalizing effect his position might have on racist or violent attitudes. This is also in a way empowering because it points to the fact that our fears are directed at things in our power to change, regardless of who is in power. And, whilst obvious in one sense, I also think it is critical to remind ourselves that such feelings don’t emerge overnight. Sometimes, certain events help symptoms of much larger issues rise to the surface and force everyone to confront them head on. Much of the shock surrounding the prevalence of these attitudes as embodied by the election result may also be said to speak to the suppression of critical voices among us – the voices of those who were not at all surprised by the results, of those who have long been the targets of these aggressions, of the voices listened to but never really fully heard.

Hopefully now we will actually start to hear each other. And hopefully our politically-charged dialogues can give way to greater recognition of the reason we care about politics at all: to collectively create a community that we all want to live in. No doubt, the actions of one person in power can have very real and direct effects on the society at large; policies can change and the institutions they shape can render the achievement of equality that much more challenging. But in the end, the underlying cries for change and reform are at their core cries for reforms of the heart, for empathy and understanding. And I wish there was a way to express this that didn’t come across so idealistic and light-hearted, because I think it is something that we all too often cast aside as less weighty than real ‘political’ issues and that so many still struggle to envisage in the same concrete, practical terms, and so I am saying it anyways, as deceptively simplistic and reductive as it may sound. Because really, how can we possibly hope for a better future, for any different outcome than what we are seeing now, if we aren’t engaging with the emotions and spirits of the individual humans that shape the institutions that represent them? And how can we claim to embrace diversity as a progressive society if we don’t humble ourselves to the fact that maybe the so-called diversity we claim to embrace is still primarily confined to those who hold the same values and world-views as ourselves?

I myself am still grappling with the dimensions of my own initial reaction of shock, of what it implies of my own ignorance and of the voices I am yet to fully hear out. All I know is that the strong ties that hold us all together, while painful at times, are more visible now than ever.

“Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious.  Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world.” – prayer excerpt from the Bahá’í writings

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Warm Fuzzy Feelings

So, many people have said to me, “Johannesburg is an amazing city. You’ll love it here.” And each time I ask them, “What is it that you like about this place?” Of course, I’ve been discovering this city little by little on my own terms and learning how best to love it through my own point of view, but there is also a lot of value in seeing a place through others’ eyes – through the people who have lived in it 3 months, 1 year, 10 years, or a whole lifetime more than you. Through these conversations, the responses that have struck me the most have been those related to the diversity of people here. Yes, it is a diversity that comes with a fair share of segregation and in some cases even racism, but nonetheless, one that seems to give its own unique vibrancy and color to the city. It has also become probably my single favorite thing here over the past few weeks.

It’s strange because, thinking back to my life in the U.S., I was never really lacking in diversity – from my own multi-cultural family to my friends groups reflecting Indian, Chinese, Korean, Jewish, African-American, Persian, and Hispanic backgrounds to my Baha’i communities with people from all over the world to simply living near a city like Chicago made up of neighborhoods that still reflect the cultural makeup of the immigrant communities that settled there years ago. But somehow, being in South Africa, I constantly find myself in awe at the diversity of people I am surrounded by each day. And, maybe it is the communication studies major in me, but something about hearing the mix of different languages and accents in particular resonates on an even deeper level, hitting me with unexpected feelings happiness. More than simply seeing the evident diversity of the people around me, the sound of the different accents coming together in one place is almost like listening to some kind of harmonious melody containing in it the essence of the beauty of mankind.

As music holds a potency to influence the soul and speak to all people in a way that words alone cannot, I can’t help but compare the intermingling of sounds that reflect the cultural background of each person to something as powerful as music. Accents just seem so beautiful to me in that they carry with them an always-present reminder of people’s cultures or places of origin. While molding one common medium of communication (in this case English) into different forms, they still allow the same message to come through — just seems like a good symbol for the oneness of humanity…how our differences are what add beauty and interest to our interactions and yet don’t prevent us from communicating and relating to each other.

At the same time, I am quite aware that the diversity I get to experience in my workplace – from the French speakers in the office across from me, to the lovely Irish (but sounds more like British) accent and sometimes even a “jolly good ol’ chap” from my one boss and the Italian accent of my half-Egyptian other boss to the always interesting South African accent of my sassy colleague in the cubicle next to me to the Japanese accent of the colleague diagonal from me – is a pretty exaggerated picture of the diversity of the city. Obviously, working in a UN office for an international aid organization comes with its fair share of expats and well-traveled, unique individuals. But still, even reflecting on who I’ve spent my weekends with – from Ethiopian dinner parties and trips to downtown areas where entire streets are full of Ethiopian-owned businesses (and several who gave me discounts just for being Ethiopian…despite my lack of Amharic-speaking skills or the fact that I don’t even look African) to native Joburg people my age (and my one friend who revealed to me that she refuses to speak the South African language she grew up with, Afrikaans, because it is a symbol of colonialism….something I found extremely interesting and a telling example of the power of language as more than simply a means of communication. especially after having read Mandela’s autobiography and all the times he mentioned how his white jailers would only speak Afrikaans and even refer to English as evidence of one’s inferiority) to Persians and Indians another weekend to Zimbabweans and Ghanaians the next. It’s hard not to feel some sense of joy from just simply having the opportunity to meet so many people from so many places in such a short period of time.

And, with all my talk of the oneness of humanity and the beauty of diversity, I realize this post has become rather cliché and cheesy, but sometimes you just have to step back and acknowledge all the warm fuzzy feelings from the good things around you. I could also talk about how it seems like with each new group of people I meet, we all at some point go around and exchange mugging or police corruption stories from our time in Joburg, in a manner always so casual and nonchalant as if a common icebreaker topic. Or about the rather unsettling realizations of how dramatically the racial demographics change depending on the wealth of the neighborhood you’re in. But, every city has its problems, and these still do not overshadow the beauty of the diversity here in my eyes.

All my oneness-of-humanity talk might also be attributed to the upcoming Baha’i youth conference this weekend and the pre-conference meeting I attended this past weekend. For those who don’t know, the Baha’i Faith is a world religion whose central aim is prettymuch to unify mankind and which teaches that all religions come from the same God. (I realize this is an extremely short summary of a religion but in the interest of not making this post a novel, you can also see the basics here: http://www.bahai.org/ or ask me more about it…plus I’m sure I’ll talk about it more in my next post). The upcoming youth conference is nothing short of incredible. One of 114 conferences happening all over the world (literally. all over the world….there was even one in Antananarivo! 😀 ) around this time, the point of the conferences is essentially to mobilize the Baha’i youth and initiate change by having youth (Baha’i or otherwise) plan more ways to serve the communities where they live. As such, all Baha’i youth were asked by the Universal House of Justice (the elected governing body of the Baha’is which is in Haifa, Israel) to only attend the conference where they live…and, seeing as I now will be living in Joburg for another 11 months, I decided not to go to the Chicago conference in August and will instead be going to this one.

And I cannot even express how excited I am. There is nothing I love more than being surrounded by a bunch of people my age with a similar life purpose and vision of the world. Not as in people of the same religion or people who think the same way, but just people who care about the world, love everyone, and want to make a difference. It is that common goal and purpose in life that leads to instant bonds between strangers and ties of friendship that go far deeper than liking the same kind of music. It was the same thing I felt at the 3-day orientation with the other fellows from my program – that instant connection with so many people I’d just met due to a common love for learning about other cultures and wanting to do something good in the world. This conference will be all the more special because I not only will get to meet hundreds of Baha’i youth from all over South Africa, Mozambique, and Swaziland, but will also have in the back of my mind the whole time the knowledge that the same meetings are happening in every part of the globe, with thousands of other youth coming together with one common vision of serving mankind. It is the embodiment of unity in every sense — one that truly extends across the whole world.