5 December, 2011

A Fight in Good Hands

srilanka08-789_2I say what I think. Perhaps that’s a bit of an understatement. I say what I think about a multitude of things and often when I’m saying what I think I am in direct conflict with what a majority of people may be thinking about the same thing, or I am at odds with a more comfortable point of view. For people who don’t know me personally it may seem as though I am constantly in the thick of one sort of battle or another, usually against forces far greater than any I could muster, often against those who are going to cream me in the long run. srilanka08-1122_2 I learned from the best: my father is now in retirement and lives as he does because he stuck to his guns through decades of service to multiple governments, my late mother was – and, in memory, remains – beloved precisely for her willingess to tell it like it is. My brothers and I carry the torch. (Only one of us, the oldest, is able to let some things go unsaid and I attribute that to his deeper involvement in scripture and his renunciation of much of the noise produced by politics).

What sustains me is what sustained and sustains them: a belief that, if I do not shy away from doing my small part, in the end, good will prevail for us all. To paraphrase the Pink Floyd song, I guess img_3871the “walk on part in the war” has always seemed more preferable to the people in my family than the “lead role in a cage.” And though my mother, in particular, often worried about our fate, and sometimes tried to tell us how hard the fall is from the edge of that limb up high in the sky, or how bare our necks looked exposed as they were, what could we do but do as she did, do as our father did: keep climbing, keep sticking our necks out.

People who do know me know that – whatever it looks like from the outside – I try to live a peaceable, compassionate life, attending just as much to moments of grace as I do to the social/injustices that plague us. And, as a rule (okay, with the exception of the fool who turns on the left turn signal after we are already at the stop-light), I tend to take people at their word, to accept that they are who them say they are, to believe that they are well-intentioned until proven otherwise. When I do find something that gets under my skin, more often than not, what I can bring to a cause is my voice. If I have been given the gift of words, then it stands to reason that I should use it to honor the gift-giver by using it to the best of my abilities. But passion and words are both double-edged swords.

This weekend, I fell into conversation with a neighbor. We had both been concerned about the misuse of authority on the part of an individual employed by this school district and we had talked about bringing our concerns to the relevant people. Although he had decided, in consultation with his wife, that it would be better not to become involved, I have no doubt that, after our conversation, they will decide to do so. But it was what he said that gave me pause. Touching my shoulder in genuine reassurance, he said, we know the fight is in good hands. i.e, mine.

Like I said, I learned from the best. I learned to speak up. But I also learned that nobody gets anything done by themselves. Audre Lorde said the following words: “there are no single issue struggles because we do not live single issue lives.” img_3338The Occupy Wall Street movement is a perfect example of what Lorde was talking about, despite the fact that so many seem not to understand the reason for its seeming “chaos.” But we also do not fight our battles alone. The boy with his finger in the dyke may have prevented the town from being inundated and countless human beings from drowning, but he suffered greatly while doing it. I do not imagine that I am that important, or that anything I do is comparable to that story, but I do know that standing alone is, well, lonely, often futile and usually fatal to ones wellbeing.

Long ago – it seems – in the months after I had returned to the US after a long period back home, when I was still looking for work and spent my time watching the Senate hearings on TV, hour by endless hour, I went to Newark, NJ to stand on a street-corner to protest the attacks against Bill Clinton in the throes of the Lewinsky scandal. It was an event organized by a relatively small group called Censure and Move On, a group which has since become MoveOn.org a behemoth power in politics. As we drove up we saw that, on a grey and rainy afternoon, there were two people standing on the corner with umbrellas. My companion – whose constant charge has been to save me from myself – surveying the embarassing scene from a fair distance said: “Ru, don’t be nuts. Let’s not make fools of ourselves standing in the rain with two people.” The words that sprang to my lips came not from me but from generations of people who had felt the same way I did right then: “That’s when it is important to stand out there,” I said. “What is the use of joining something when there are a thousand people there? This, when it is difficult and uncomfortable, this is when it counts.” With that I stormed off and, as he often does, my husband soon followed even though this type of shenanigan is not his thing, it has never been; it will always be difficult for him but, to his everlasting credit – much more than I deserve because, hard though it may be, I grew up learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable – he has always done it when it counts.

I may have the words to write persuasively about my case, and those words probably give the impression that the “fight” whatever it is, can be successfully won by me. I may speak with passion for my candidate, my cause, my peeve, and that passion probably makes people believe that I’m “passionate enough for the both of us.” srilanka08two-773_2Neither is true. Nothing, absolutely nothing, except for love for another and enlightenment of the soul, can be accomplished alone. No matter how strong the words, no matter how great the passion. Everything takes a village. And then many villages. And entire regions. And a country. And many countries. But mostly, it takes more than one. The fight is not in good hands if it remains in the hands of a single person because that is usually a fight that is going to be lost. So if you ever wonder if it is really necessary to raise your hand and be counted when somebody else seems to have it covered, or if it seems a little out of your comfort zone – even though you are invested in the outcome – or if you are worried about what this one or that one might think of you – even though you really hope the fight will be won – rest assured, it is. It is always necessary. Unless you are equally invested, equally hopeful that the fight is going to be lost. If that is the case, by all means, remain silent.

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5 Responses to “A Fight in Good Hands”

  1. Gayathri Fernando says:

    Wonderful Ru !! Universal child…. drops of jupiter in her hair….. great inspiration for a rainy and drained day dealing with ageing mother-crisis in SL and writing your piece for my web site… ;)

  2. Allaam says:

    Adore your fighting spirit literally speaking..

  3. Sara Stowell says:

    Ru, just Friday night I was in tears for feeling so lonely for lack of a community to join with, or to join with me. I commented to someone that I was thinking of World AIDS Day, and the death of four US churchwomen in El Salvador on December 2, 1980, and everyone around me looked at me and one said I was a giant buzz kill…. speak up, speak now, speak loudly, join those who speak… and please tell Mark that I salute him too.

  4. Ru says:

    Thanks Sara. Looking back at our years at Bates I remember well how you lived what you felt, said what you thought, from helping me raise money to go home with a Sri Lankan lunch (!) to raising your hand repeatedly in our political science classes to bring the elephant in the room out into broad daylight. It is no surprise that one of the first stories I wrote has you as a central figure. With you in spirit.

  5. Wendy Babiak says:

    I love this, Ru. You made me cry a little bit there, with gratitude for a diaspora of us kindred spirits who don’t know how to bite our tongues (or at least have given up the habit out of a sense of self-preservation…if I did it whenever I felt I should I’d have chewed it off by now!). And gratitude that I have a husband like yours, who recently supported me and even found his own voice at a nascent Occupy Ithaca meeting some weeks ago.

    Things are whacked…so many battles that need fighting! But your writing does reassure me that I am not alone. Thanks.

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The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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