Seventeen years ago today – 9-11-2001 – I wake up at 6:30 a.m. in Tuscon to participate in a socially responsible investment conference. As I get dressed, I turn on the TV, and see the image of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. A terrible movie to start the day, I say to myself…and then, soon after, another. I am jolted into horror. It is true. And I cannot imagine the hate that has gone into this atrocity.
There are no conference sessions that morning. No planes flying out of Tuscon, no way to get home, or to get through to New York on the phone. Numb, I join with several friends, as we take a desert drive with a Tusconian – into a peaceful place, for two hours, free of conflict, hatred, fear.
An hour into the desert, our guide stops the jeep and we get out to experience a bit of flora and fauna of the natural, balanced world. We explore shrubs, cacti. And then our guide asks who would like to meet and hold his pet – Rosie. From under the front seat he pulls out a plastic container, and opens his two hands to receive Rosie – at least 8 inches in diameter – a tarantula.
My mind goes blank, overwhelmed by family arachnophobia. And believe you me – this is one big, ugly specimen. I am petrified. And then I think of the Twin Towers. What would it take to overcome my own terror of the other? Cross a boundary I had always thought impossible. Trembling, I hold out my hands.
To my surprise, Rosie is very light, for all her reach. And she is a bit of a klutz. Can’t quite seem to get her eight legs coordinated. I realize that she is unsteady, and wonder whether she is frightened too. Try to help her balance. Pass her to the man next to me. Tell him to be careful. Rosie is fragile.
In those few minutes, something in me has connected. I feel strangely vulnerable. Powerful. Changed. Wonder what it would take for us all, in our moments of fear, to cross an uncrossable boundary… and love.
Thirteen years earlier: August 31, 1988. Apartheid South Africa.
In Johannesburg, the largest civilian bomb blast in the country’s history destroys the South African Council of Churches, which has outspokenly and courageously criticized apartheid. Reverend Frank Chikane, general secretary of the SACC – who has endured imprisonment, torture and poisoning at the hands of apartheid agents – receives a call in the early morning, and rushes to the scene. There he finds the policeman assigned to the site, and recognizes him as the man who, months earlier, jailed and tortured him.
“Then what did you do?” I ask him later. He answers, “We picked through the rubble together.”
He teaches me a profound lesson I still struggle to fully understand – activism that becomes more powerful when we hold onto our shared humanity, not hatred, and remain whole. When we see beyond what is broken from a place of love. Begin to rebuild together.
“The trouble with many of you in the US,” observes my Cuban friend, Manuel Lee, “is that you feel you have to see every change in your own lifetime.” He’s right. I want to see the world transformed today. Now. I try to imagine what it would mean to love beyond my own lifetime. How is it possible to love forward, work for change we will never live to see?
Thinking back, I remember nine years earlier 1979: I, an only child, am six months pregnant. And my mother is dying of cancer. I find myself talking to her about her unborn first grandchild, asking her to hold on. She tells me we can place the child on the pillow in her bed, right next to her.
Then she looks at me directly, and does what she can do and I cannot – raises her right eyebrow by itself. Not a religious or spiritual person, she adds uncharacteristically, “Don’t worry if I am not here when the baby is born…Because I will be there.”
She does not live to see Sari. But when Sari is born, the nurse places the baby on my belly. And that little face, that can barely open her newborn eyes, looks at me – and raises her right eyebrow. In that moment, I feel the power of the love my mother taught me – love beyond its own lifetime. Love that refuses to let go.
Perhaps that is the radical, messianic love that our ancestors have sustained throughout our tradition. The responsibility to work to repair the world, even when we know we will not finish the job. The faith some in our families carried with them in the camps, singing “I Believe…Ani Ma’amin.” Ani Ma’amin.
I’ll conclude with a poem for today. For the new year:
From the Root
Love conquers its fear,
climbs a peak, jumps, not knowing
whether it can fly.
Love abides beyond
waves battering shore to sand.
The ocean endures.
Love remembers roots
of sheltering oaks, even
when their branches break.
Love – a sun that sets –
plants its eternal seed deep
in the horizon.