Saturday, January 25, 2014


When Zulu tribes people approach each other in the bush, they call out “Sawubona”, which means “We see you”.  The person replies, “Yebo sawubona”, “Yes, we see you too”.  It implies more than an individual recognizing another, invoking the “we” in all of us, according to Orland Bishop, who is a brilliant man working in healing and human development, mentoring at-risk youth and creating urban truces.  He believes that seeing is a dialogue that establishes you as a witness to each other’s presence on this earth. “My seeing includes my ancestors and the divinities. Seeing has empowered us to investigate our mutual potentials for living,” he says.

I began several years ago to call out “Sawubona” to my horses each morning as I walk down the path to the barn and they stick out their beautiful red heads to greet me. They murmur in acknowledgement and I respond, “Yebo sawubona”.  I look my horses in the eye and communicate more deeply with them than I do with most people I interact with throughout my day.  With these frigid, snowy conditions this winter, I am visiting them in the barn every couple of hours to be sure that they are drinking water, eating and moving around enough to avoid getting sick. Last night, the wind whipped up, whistling and rattling the branches of the trees as I filled water buckets at 10 pm and dispensed a couple of carrots along with extra flakes of hay.  It was hard to walk away from them, back into my warm, cozy house without wishing that the horses could come along with me.  Still, my older mare, Silk, pressed her face against my arm, resting on me and then pushing me to go,  and I understood that she was telling me that they would be fine --they were able to take care of themselves in the cold.  And this morning, when I dragged my aching bones out to feed them and called out “Sawubona!”, I received the enthusiastic “Nnnmmmm, nnnmm!” that let me know everything was all right.

Why is it easier to establish this “mutual consent”, as Orland Bishop calls it, with our animals than it is with each other?  I have heard that some indigenous elders have been urging us to “change the Dream”.  Clearly, the Dream that we have right now is not leading us down a path that many of us want to follow. We look each other in the eyes less and less these days, and it causes so much suffering. “If we see each other, something is happening that would not happen unless we are together,” Orland says, ”If I’m by myself, it will never happen. So I must look for those who are looking for me… And if we do what we are here to do, what would the world look like?”

With each person that I encounter today, I am going to take an extra moment to make good eye contact and allow them to tell me what they want me to see about themselves. I believe it only takes a moment to change the conversation.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Legacy

We visited my mom yesterday, and as we drove away from the nursing home, I asked myself the unanswerable question that floats through my head so often these days: Why has she lived to be 99? The only reason that I’ve been able to come up with is that she feels compelled to be here on this earth until her only grand-daughter is grown up and living a happy, independent life.  I know that my mother has really never trusted me to do a good enough job protecting my child, and that she has always believed that things will only go well if she personally prays to God hard enough for it to happen the way she wants it to be. It’s always worked before, she thinks, and her belief has only solidified over time.
My mother and I had a contentious relationship from the time that I was a teen-ager. She is a dictator and a perfectionist, as many remarkable, strong people are.  It is a direct line from her mother, who was even more stubborn and heroic than her youngest daughter. My grandmother, whose family owned an estate in an area that Russia and Poland continually battle over, was the iron hand that held my rebellious mother in place until World War II shook everything apart in their world.
My mother was in medical school, married to a doctor and helped transport the wounded officers from Poland to Hungary when the bombs began falling on Warsaw.  My grandmother was forced onto a cattle car and shipped to a gulag in Siberia with her daughter-in-law who was pregnant. All she took was pillows, blankets and a pair of long white gloves. My grandfather was killed in the bombings, and one of her sons, whom I am named after, was tortured by the Nazis. 
When my grandmother got to the gulag, there was nothing but some piles of wood, and they were told to build their own shelter. She marched into the office of the Russian who was in charge, wearing her white gloves. There were two soldiers blocking her path with their bayonets, and she pushed them aside, throwing her gloves disdainfully on the floor because she had soiled them. In perfect Russian, she insisted that the Commandant give milk and food to the women and children, lying that she was friends with a high-ranking official in Moscow who would learn if they were mistreated. Completely cowed by her, the man in charge gave her what she asked. 
After six years in Siberia, one day, the gates of the gulag were opened, and everyone in it was told that they were free to go because the war was over. Their captors assumed that everyone would starve or freeze to death out there in the middle of nowhere. My grandmother found a farmer who was willing to take the small frail  group of old people, women and children on horses as far as he would go to another farm, where she persuaded the next farmer to do the same. Eventually, she managed to get them all back to Warsaw. She lived there until she was 96.
My mother’s family was excellent horsemen and horsewomen. Two of my uncles were Calvary officers. My grandmother and my mother could both ride sidesaddle and bareback effortlessly.  It’s no wonder that I was riding a horse at the same time that I learned to walk, or that my daughter is also blessed with the ability to ride like that.  But horses are not the point of this story.
Both my grandmother and my mother felt that through their faith and their actions, they were able to control what happened and keep others safe. I’ve always marveled at it, but never believed that anyone can really do that.  Yet, at the points in my mother’s life in recent years when I’ve been faced with making scary decisions about caring for my mom, I find myself looking upward and saying, “Okay, God, you drive.” Miraculously, the best outcome for her always occurs.  So, even though I can not have any way of seeing it now, I often wonder if there is still some reason that my mother is here with us.

Her love for my daughter far outshines her love for me.  As my child becomes a woman, I see the similarities in her and my mother.  My daughter is never afraid to stand up for someone else.  She has no idea of her own strength and persuasive abilities, but others clearly see them the moment they meet her.  She deeply connects to my mother, and it always grabs me by the heart to see them conspiring and laughing, while my daughter helps my mother eat a piece of cake or walk down the hall. So, maybe that really is why this old warrior is still here, to ease the passage for this young being from childhood to adulthood in a way that was more gentle than her own transition in 1939. At least, that’s what I’d like to believe.