I have an early but distinct memory of watching my mother on the front porch of our suburban home in Cape Town, South Africa sewing. I was maybe seven years old at the time, maybe eight. Seeing her busy with handiwork was not that unusual, but this scene was.
Laid out on the table before her was a woman’s dress. It looked new, but not fancy. It’s shoulder pads had been removed and were lying on the table, next to at least 6-7 dress buttons lying in a discarded pile. She had dismantled the hemline of the dress and was now, with meticulous care, making new buttons using the fabric from the inside hemline. Before her on the table lay two small gold coins. She would take a coin, cover it in fabric and re-attach the newly minted button to the dress. She had alchemized all but two remaining coins.
I watched quietly so as not to break the spell, as she proceeded to unstitch the shoulder pads, stuffing a wad of paper money inside to replaced the white fluffy padding that she had removed and that now lay like displaced clouds fallen from on high. When the last pad was in place my curiosity bubbled into a torrent of questions.
She explained that her sister who lived in East Berlin needed money. She also explained what it meant to live in an authoritarian regime. The fact that we too were currently living in such a place may have been bypassed since we were white, and as such we had escaped the massive cruelty bestowed on people of color in apartheid South Africa.
She felt quite certain that, if she had had some gold coins tucked away, her perilous flight from Nazi Germany would have been softened. She posited then and many times thereafter that both her daughters should always have easily portable financial resources – just in case.
The ‘in case’ she was referring to was another bout of anti-Semitism that may befall us in our lifetime. Still vivid in her cellular memory was the terror of how it had shredded her life and those proximate to her, while it had killed others of her immediate and distant family.
I scoffed at this, rejecting even the possibility, blithely spending down the stash of coins that were part of my inheritance. It was simply inconceivable to me that after what the western world had lived through and was still recovering from, that anti-Semitism would be on the raise again. That religious intolerance would be on the rise again. That racial discrimination would be on the rise again. That a person of color or one who had the wrong non Christian faith might flag one for unfavorable or sometimes lethal treatment.
That people would be plucked off the streets and deported back to countries where they may be in danger and where they had not lived for decades. Families torn apart, again. That young men of color would stopped in their cars, or on the streets, often shot and killed at the slightest provocation, or none at all. That synagogues would have their windows smashed and cemetaries would be desecrated, again. Have we learnt anything? Have I learnt anything?
Having been brought up under the shadow of Nazi trauma I had as an ongoing bewilderment even as a child, as to how the regular rank and file German population had permitted the genocide to occur?
How had a population of regular folks enabled a power structure to grow that would eventually rob each of them of their own powers and so many more millions of their lives and freedoms.
With regret and a certain amount of shame I discovered the answer first hand some two decades later when as a member of a spiritual community that had been founded on the highest aspirations, I witnessed how it morphed into an authoritarian mini-state, under our watch. A place where critics were often exiled or segregated and shamed.
I was complicit by virtue of a certain passivity, rationalizing away aspects of what was occurring to suit my mindset at that time and keep me out of harm’s way. I became one of those ordinary German folks I had been so curious about.
I became someone caught between two conflicting sets of values and needs. The need for membership and safety and the need to speak up, stand up in the face of a system that was crossing some ethical line, at least by my estimation.
Decades of hard work, after I re-entered the regular world, of
frugality and mindful stewarding of whatever resources had been mine to garner and tend, have culminated in a post professional life of beauty, space and a delicious, albeit modest, level of ease.
I suspect I am not alone in wondering how on earth I am to live inside of the sweetness of my personal circle of comfort when the unimaginable is indeed unfolding all around this country and beyond, both socially and environmentally.
How do I reconcile the personal that wants to grab every ray of sunlight and hold it close to my very bones, greedily absorbing the warmth in the latter parts of this waning lifecycle while a gathering storm rages outside the cozy confines of my personal world, one that needs all hands on deck and all voices raised in a song that joins and a shout that disclaims.
I suspect there is no easy, ready or one size fits-all-answer to the question ‘how’. Do I squirrel my last few remaining coins in case we too have to make a mad dash to the nearest border, or do I take out my scissors, pick up the needle my mother taught me to use, start transforming a dress to help provide resources to someone else who may need it infinitely more?
Or, do I give some of my energetic and financial gold to support those who stand on the front lines of action, those dedicated tireless ones who run organizations that do make a difference, even if it draws down some of my own long term ease?
Some days I wonder if I have a wingspan wide enough to shelter both sets of values. There is so much wonder-ing, as each day continues to bring the nectar and the worry, as each day brings pure gold to be savored and gold to be spent.
May we all find our right balance , and may our long nights bring forth the rest we need, ever trusting light’s return.