'What I do is me: for that I came.' G M Hopkins

Friday, August 27, 2010

Courage to Contradict

I have a very clever daughter. Well, I actually have three clever daughters but the one I’m thinking of is working in medical research towards her PhD at Trinity College, Dublin.

It’s really interesting. Did you know that there is a group of women known as the Dublin Cohort who were given contaminated Anti D treatment during childbirth which infected them with Hepatitis C for life? Many developed chronic liver disease but others were discovered to be clear of infection years later. The question is how did their immune systems overcome what is an incurable disease? Can the body’s natural killer cells be boosted to counteract infections such as Hep C and HIV? One hundred and seventy million people worldwide currently have Hep C and every one of them would be please to know that there are people like my daughter working long hours in lonely labs looking for new pathways to minimise the side-effects of treatments.

However, smart or not, this aforementioned daughter has gaping holes in her education. I stood with her recently in a well known supermarket as she deliberated in the cleaning products aisle. She gazed in consternation at the colourful bottles on display. She was having difficulty differentiating between detergent, with which to cleanse clothes, and fabric conditioner, with which to separate the tangled weave and leave garments smelling of 'summer breeze infusions with pure oxygen freshness'. Much to my amusement she was genuinely bewildered and admitted that she has never really known which was which. I blame her mother! When she had her head in Chemistry and Maths books I should have been teaching her to hand wash delicates and iron collars and cuffs first. Had I not neglected instruction in the essential art of homemaking she might have been better prepared for important life choices.

The Sunday Times ran a feature in their Style magazine this week detailing advice mothers give to their daughters on how to achieve success and happiness. Apparently formal education cannot teach the life lessons our offspring need to know. Among the ‘Pearls of Wisdom’ imparted by loving mothers to their daughters was the warning to beware of a boyfriend who fits your skinny jeans (because his legs should be bigger than yours) and the injunction to snog at least one man with really long hair!

I was clearing out some of my parents’ papers this week when I came upon their marriage certificate. I was amazed to find my mother’s occupation listed as a ‘domestic’. I had never heard this word used as a noun until we went to live in Zimbabwe where maids were officially known as domestic workers or ‘domestics’ for short. Ours was called Veronicah, or at least we thought that was her name until several months into our relationship she confessed that her name was actually Ronicah but a white woman had mistakenly added the prefix and she had not had the courage to contradict her. We settled on Vero.

My mother was not just domesticated ie a woman with finely tuned skills in polishing, sweeping, cooking, scrubbing and baking but she was a domestic ie a woman who was defined by this homely role. Like many in her generation she never had a paid job outside the home, in spite of a latent longing to be a teacher.

Being a domestic was certainly not bliss in the days before automatic washing machines, microwaves, dishwashers and dysons. Women had few choices and for those like my mum who grew up during the war, there were even fewer as the men went to fight and the women took over jobs on the farm. However, without any ‘ologies’ to her name her spirit was strong enough to break the mould, date a German prisoner of war and be the first in her village to go off to college in Scotland, no less.

Anyway, according to Style magazine I’m going to turn into my mother and my girls are going to turn into me:

‘The daughter of the mother is a total clone, a carbon copy from the elasticated waistband down and the doughy chest up.’

How did they know about my doughy chest? Heaven help them if this is true. I had more opportunities than my mother and I want my girls to climb higher than I. It’s character and courage that count for women. I don’t want to pass on beauty tips to my daughters like ‘a tan fades but wrinkles don’t’ or teach them how to make a fancy cocktail - they can discover those things for themselves. I want them to be strong on the inside, to remember who they belong to and to love people. I want them to have the strength to go for it, to say what their real name is, to stand up for what is right and good, to have the courage of their convictions and to keep on becoming till the end.

In final frustration I explained to my daughter that washing her clothes in Lenor would be like washing her hair with conditioner. Like Archimedes, another nerdy scholar who probably didn’t have detergent or conditioner in his famous bath, Eureka! She got it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Love thy Neighbour

I stood in the butcher’s the other day and watched him crack pork ribs apart with a meat cleaver. Not unlike a machete, I thought. As he shook the powdered barbeque sauce into the bag my eyes wandered round the market square outside. The place was crowded with Saturday morning shoppers: families with young children by the hand or in buggies; elderly men and women out and about for a few ‘messages’; teenagers lounging on walls in the late summer sunshine watching the world go by. People were eating Cafolla’s ice cream and gazing into shop windows at the ‘Final reductions’ and new school shoes.

Fleetingly, because that’s all I could bear, I allowed my mind to imagine the carnage if suddenly neighbour turned on neighbour to torture and kill – right there in the street while the sun beamed down, with kitchen knives. How long does it actually take to kill a struggling, screaming man with a blade? Where does the killer cut first, and second? How much blood is in one person? A whole family?

Stop right there, I told myself. I paid for the ribs and began to plan the salads for the braai. I stepped back into the square and breathed a sigh of thanks for the normality of it all.

In the week when elections were held in Rwanda, I’ve been reading about the 1994 massacre when possibly one million people were slaughtered in just one hundred days. Some of the horror of it was captured in the film Hotel Rwanda which told the true story of Paul Rusesabagina who sheltered refugees at the Hotel des Mille Collines. He managed to rally all his connections to keep people and his conscience alive.

He and his convoy were among the lucky ones who escaped. From whom? Who was the enemy? The answer is bleak in its simplicity: the man next door. The government had adopted a new policy according to which everyone in the country’s Hutu majority group was called upon to murder everyone in the Tutsi minority (known affectionately as ‘cockroaches’). They imagined that by exterminating the Tutsi people they could make the world a better place and the mass killing followed. Sound familiar?

For the first time in its history, the United Nations used the word ‘genocide’ to describe what happened in Rwanda. Philip Gourevitch, author of We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda, reckons that the dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust. When I was growing up I often asked my parents who had lived during WW2 why they and their generation didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust. Now I know why. They didn’t know until it was too late and anyway they were busy getting on with their own lives. Just like me in 1994. I was preparing to go and live in Africa with my young family when I saw live TV footage of a roadside machete attack in Rwanda. It chills me still to recall it. I was teaching in a school at the time where the caretaker was horrified that I would even consider taking children to the ‘dark continent’. I pointed out to him that our own history in Northern Ireland is bloody and violent to which he replied, ‘Ah, but here they only shoot you.’

Most people in Rwanda were not shot. No quick and clean executions but door to door hacking with machetes and ‘masus’ – clubs studded with nails – neighbour betraying and murdering neighbour. Tutsis accepted death as inevitable – warnings were sounded in regular radio bulletins. There was no escape. Some killers cut Achilles tendons so that they could stop to eat or sleep, leaving their victims in agony till morning and certain death. As in any conflict there are too many unanswerable questions: How did so many Tutsis allow themselves to be killed? How did so many Hutus allow themselves to kill? People used to obeying orders obeyed one too many, leaving the nameless and numberless dead.

Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland are neighbours. We have more in common with each other than with people anywhere else in the world. One newspaper headline last week declared that Republican dissidents are on the rise. We must stand together to resist violence because when the blind lead the blind, both fall into the ditch.

It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.

Primo Levi, 1986, The Drowned and the Saved

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Old Photographs

I’m back in the wet after three weeks sunning in Florida and Indiana. I took a pile of old photographs over to my uncle’s – small sepia and black and white images of days long gone: a young couple, she bow legged and he in an ill-fitting suit with his hair slicked down posing outside a thatched cottage – my grandparents during their courtship.

I enjoyed listening to Ray reminisce about his days growing up on the farm. My favourite photos are of the horses, Dick and Captain, straining against the plough as they drew clean furrows in the resistant soil. I was thrilled to see the Amish people still ploughing in this way in Shipshewana. There is one beautiful picture of Granddad Harrison tending the huge carthorse while his tiny son grips the reins. The child is smiling and probably thought he was actually holding the horse when in fact his father was in control. A truth in black and white.

I spent my last week in Florida with Robin Mark and the band. People love to worship with them and I was moved by listening to stories of lives touched by his songs and music. He also tells a good tale and one of his favourites is about how his wife pleaded with him not to throw her a party for her 50th. Of course, he ignored her and we celebrated in style with an Abba tribute band, no less! He talks about how he dug out some old photographs for the occasion and discovered a young man staring back at him with hope, confidence and expectation – his younger self. He wonders whether a photograph taken today would show the same hope and optimism and sings a memorable little song:

Old photographs, I’m looking at scenes from history
Who are those people, where is that place?
Is that really me?

I’m older but no wiser; you’ve lost a little weight
Are those angelic faces the ones who stare across my breakfast table?

Old photographs, sweet memories
Happy days gone by
I love them and I hate them
For the camera does not lie

It’s my birthday today. I’ve also been looking at old images of me as a little girl. The scary thing is that I’m still wearing my hair like that! I have a cheeky smile because all is right with the world – I’m loved and happy and the future looks bright.

And what about now, half a century later? Well, I'm loved and happy and on most days the future still looks bright. As Robin sings, I don’t always feel wiser but I want to live what’s left in faith, not fear. I am thankful for the days. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places and I have a delightful inheritance.

One of my most treasured companions along the way has been Oswald Chambers who died in 1917 but whose writings continue to inspire. Today I read his challenge to keep reaching for the highest:

‘There is more than we have got at as yet.’